A Sexual Violence Awareness Advertisement in Port-au-Prince (Justin Simeone)
In recent weeks, “Superstorm” Sandy has reminded many Americans of the devastating impact of natural disasters on ordinary life. Prior to reaching the United States, the storm first storm first ripped through Haiti—leaving more than fifty dead and many more homeless.
This process of devastation and reconstruction has become all too common to Haitians over the past three years. Since a massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake in January 2010, the small nation has slowly faded from the international headlines. Yet, at the time Sandy made landfall in Haiti, there were still more than 370,000 individuals still living in provisional camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in and around Port-au-Prince.
The challenges that these IDPs face today are similar those that immediately followed the earthquake. Shelters are still precarious. Adequate food, water, and sanitation remain difficult to obtain. Security patrols continue with limited frequency. And perhaps most disturbing, reports of rape and other forms of sexual violence are still pervasive.
“After the earthquake, the situation was inhumane and degrading,” remarks Malya Villard-Appolon, a rape survivor and co-founder of KOFAVIV. “There was no security. There was no food; there was no work. … Two years after the earthquake, it is still the same. The people are still under the tent; they don’t have electricity; they are getting raped.”
A Human Right to Protection from Sexual Violence
This observation is disturbing given that many international and regional conventions directly or indirectly prohibit sexual violence—particularly against women and girls. For instance, even though there is no explicit prohibition under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the CEDAW Committee has recognized that articles 2, 5, 11, 12, and 16 require states to protect women from such violence.
In 1993, the UN General Assembly passed the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. One year later, the Organization of American States adopted the Convention of Belém do Pará, which affirms under Article 3: “every woman has the right to be free from violence in both the public and private spheres.” This includes physical, sexual, and psychological violence.
The right to be free from sexual violence extends to IDP camps. Principle 11(2)(a) of the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement underscores a right to protection from rape and other “outrages upon person dignity, such as acts of gender-specific violence, forced prostitution and any form of indecent assault.” The legal annotations specify that this right includes individuals of both sexes.
A Provisional Camp near the center of Port-au-Prince (Justin Simeone)
The Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s Handbook for the Protection of Internally Displaced Persons presents a series of specific recommendations for safeguarding vulnerable populations against sexual violence. Likewise, the Sphere Project’s Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response instructs humanitarian agencies to consider specific measures to reduce risks of trafficking, forced prostitution, rape, or domestic violence.
While these international human rights standards establish a composite right to protection against sexual violence, the current situation in Port-au-Prince poses difficult questions. One critical question relates to duty: who is responsible to protect vulnerable populations? It is clear that the primary obligation falls upon the Haitian government. Principle 3 of the UN Guiding Principles nonetheless specifies that foreign states, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations also hold a responsibility prevent sexual violence wherever possible.
This recognition also raises a second pressing question: for how long do these obligations last? Principles 1 and 2 of the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement specify that “persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence” are entitled to “protection and assistance during displacement as well as during return or resettlement and reintegration.” This standard should consequently obligate the Haitian state and the international community to ensure protection against sexual violence both within and beyond the current camps.
“We Sleep with One Eye Open”
In spite of these observations, the empirical evidence suggests that the post-earthquake response has often failed to live up to the human rights ideals embodied by these international laws, norms, and guidelines. Closer analysis reveals some of the underlying challenges that accompany efforts to prevent sexual violence in Haiti.
A recent study completed by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice examines the prevalence of rape and unwanted touching—collectively defined as sexual violence—within Hait’s IDP camps. In a household survey conducted across four camps in and around Port-au-Prince, an alarming 14.2 percent of households reported at least one victim of rape, unwanted touching, or both in the one-year period following the earthquake. Approximately 70 percent of households reported greater worry about sexual violence since January 2010—suggesting a possible increase in sexual violence from the pre-earthquake period.
Sexual violence is not, however, an entirely random or unpredictable occurrence. The study finds that certain populations are especially vulnerable. The typical victim was young, female, and living in a household with three or fewer members. In addition, across and within camps, households with at least one victim were systematically more likely to report limited access to food, water, and sanitation. For instance, individuals who went at least one day without eating in the previous week were more than twice as likely to come from a victim household. Similarly, individuals who felt that the nearest latrine was “too far” from their shelter were twice as likely to live in a victim household (see figure).
Although the linkages between these risk factors and sexual violence are complex, interviews with camp residents, government officials, and humanitarian service providers suggest that access to basic resources is essential for at least three reasons.
First, when basic resources only available in remote or insecure locations, women and girls are frequently exposed to external threats from camp and non-camp perpetrators. Second, in cases where basic resources are inaccessible or unaffordable, vulnerable camp residents can become dependent upon abusive individuals. Third, in the absence of sources of self-sufficiency, women and girls may pursue desperate behaviors, including transactional sex.
In this midst of these difficult conditions, it is not surprising that one resident cautioned: “We sleep with one eye open.”
Toward Rights-Based Resettlement?
Today, there are some signs of improvement. National and international officials have coordinated to install more lighting within the existing camps. The number of reported rapes and related criminal prosecutions have also increased. Officials from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have simultaneously established training programs to prepare security personnel to respond to sexual violence cases.
Against the backdrop of the CHRGJ findings, there are nevertheless troubling signs within and beyond the camps. Most notably, international and non-governmental organizations have increasingly moved to eliminate basic resource programs. International aid providers ceased general food distributions just months after the earthquake in March 2010. Free water distribution later ceased in December 2011. Although these efforts aim to prevent long-term dependency, they may have the short-term consequence of exposing further households to greater risks of sexual violence.
In conjunction, there is a related effort to close camps and resettle current IDPs. As the IOM data indicate, the pace of voluntary resettlement has slowly declined since March 2011 (see figure). This slower pace is partly due to the fact that the remaining 370,000 IDPs have fewer resettlement options—owing to the fact that the vast majority come from “red” or “yellow” houses made uninhabitable by the earthquake. According to the IOM, only half of those individuals who left camps between June and August 2012 received support from return programs, such as those managed by J/P HRO at the Terrain de Golf camp. Many others have been subject to forced evictions from public and private landowners.
The Haitian government has begun to resettle many camp residents under the much vaunted “16/6” program—which ambitiously aims to relocate 5,239 families from six camps. In exchange for leaving the camps, each family receives up to $500 for one year of rent payments. Yet this unsustainable measure risks that many families will simply have to move into unsafe “red” houses or even back into camps after the one-year period. A survey by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux found that this money was insufficient for approximately 66 percent of program participants to resettle. A full 40 percent of families reported living in worse conditions than before the earthquake.
Where does this leave Haitians who are most vulnerable to sexual violence? The Haitian government and the international community should take steps to establish rights-based resettlement programs that are equitable and sustainable. Current efforts will undoubtedly make rights violations less visible to the international community, but they will also replicate many of the same challenges that vulnerable populations face within dangerous camp environments. As the camps slowly fade from the headlines, efforts to ensure critical international human rights protections should not follow.
Latrines outside a camp in the center of Port-au-Prince (Justin Simeone)