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Dangerous camps

by Rita Schäfer

In brief

After the quake: For the moment many find shelter in refugee camps

After the quake: For the moment many find shelter in refugee camps

Nine months after the devastating earthquake, little progress is being made on reconstruction in Haiti. Many people still live in refugee camps – dangerous places, especially for women and girls. Rape is on the increase and many of the victims are minors.

Normally, it is women who feed their families. But when it comes to accessing relief supplies, women are often disadvantaged. Occasionally, they even have to perform sexual acts in exchange for food. Rape is a daily occurrence in Haiti’s overcrowded refugee camps, where armed gangs terrorise residents. They slit open tents at night or assault women and girls on the way to the toilet in the poorly lit camps. There are also many cases of victims being raped by whole groups of masked men – most of whom escape unidentified because of poor policing.

But even where victims are able to identify a rapist, cases are not normally prosecuted. There are not enough police officers; and those that make up the lower ranks tend to be poorly trained and sexist. The victims, moreover, fear revenge should their attackers be prosecuted. The climate of impunity leads to a culture of silence in which rape and gang violence seem to become like normal events.

Poorly equipped state hospitals are another issue. Conversations between hospital staff and rape victims take place in public, for example, and incidents of rape are not recorded. International women's and human rights organisations denounce the appalling state of affairs, pointing out that the official figures reflect only a tiny percentage of the rapes committed. In April 2010, the NGO Médecins sans Frontières noted reports of 68 rapes at a single mobile health centre. And in February and March 2010 alone, the grassroots organisation KOFAVIV (Commission of Women Victims for Victims) documented more than 230 incidents in the 15 camps it monitors. US lawyers and local women's groups have established that the majority of rape victims are girls under the age of 18.

The human rights experts who visited camps in cooperation with the women's organisation MADRE in May and June 2010 reckon that three percent of camp residents are rape victims – a significant number of them single women and their daughters. MADRE published their report in late July.

Rita Schäfer