HAITI: Six Months On, Women Continue their Daily Struggle for Survival

Monday, July 12, 2010
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Human Rights

Living under tents, female survivors of the earthquake may no longer be openly mourning the tragic loss of their husbands and children. But as HPN's Géraldine Sainville reports, six months after the earthquake, many continue to struggle for their daily survival.

Sitting on a rickety chair wedged between rows of tightly packed shelters, Stalia is doing the daily chore of washing clothes. Despite the shade, sweat drips from her young but prematurely weathered face. With a faint smile, this mother of three talks of a life of discomfort and at times distress living among 47,000 other homeless people in an overcrowded camp set up in the neighbourhood of Carrefour, which sprawls south of the capital Port-au-Prince. "I always feel ill at ease, living with no privacy, no respect", says Stalia. "My life has changed for the worse" .

Cooking utensils piled up high in a nearby washbasin are proof of the tough conditions in which this 30 year old mother and her three children are forced to live.

"Another family lives in this shack," says Stalia, pointing to a shelter patched up with sheets of plastic pitched in the middle of the recreation area of Carrefour camp.

Living in the cramped and overcrowded conditions, women have to face daily risks. Despite efforts deployed by IOM and other organisations working on water and sanitation issues, an overwhelming majority of displaced women continue to lack access to areas which protect their privacy. Similarly, women continue to plead for more latrines dedicated to the camp's female residents, as a way to reduce chronic violence against women.

"The latrines are in a terrible state", says 27 year old Farvenise who is busy braiding her grandmother's white hair. "The toilets are full of mosquitoes and cockroaches".

After the earthquake, Haitian women have to face daily risks including violence inside temporary camps. More than 1,000 camps have been set up in and around Port-au-Prince, many with inadequate sanitation. Overcrowding breeds violence and increases health risks, especially among women.

"The living conditions are deplorable overall", says Yolette Mengual from Haiti's Ministry for the Status of Women and Women's Rights. "Some camps continue to be plagued with water and sanitation problems. As a result, 80% of women in camps suffer from vaginal infections".

Efforts are being deployed by the Ministry in partnership with humanitarian organizations to improve sanitary conditions in the camps and a mobile unit has been set up to help women in camps.

Violence against displaced women is also rampant in camps and spontaneous settlements.

"Overcrowding and poor living conditions are conducive to violence against women, including rape", says Myriam Espérance, who works for the local NGO Réseau des Femmes pour Gagner. Present in three camps, this grassroots NGO based in the neighbourhood of Martissant, provides support to victims of sexual violence.

It also seeks to raise awareness in the camps. "Despite on-going efforts, much more needs to be done", says Myriam Espérance."

IOM's Camp Management Operations and Health Unit also play an important role in helping and referring victims of sexual violence to partners in the protection cluster providing victim support and follow up services.

The Camp Coordination and Camp Management Cluster (CCCM) keeps a confidential record of all sex crimes, which is shared with appropriate partners to make sure the needs of victims are met.

IOM's medical and psychosocial teams are part of a network that provides psychosocial support to victims in 21 camps and in the psychiatric hospital of Beudet.

IOM also supports the training of psychosocial caseworkers among the humanitarian community as well as camp managers, regarding follow-up mechanisms for victims of sexual violence.

As part of this initiative, data on sexual violence is compiled with a view to map areas experiencing high rates of violence. The information collected, which is shared with the UN police and the Joint Operations Task Force is essential to set up adequate protection, support and referral services and further advocacy efforts to try and limit violence and abuse against women.

On an operational level, IOM's site planning teams continue their efforts to make sure separate toilet and shower facilities are set up to mitigate risks to women and girls. Improving the current living conditions in camps is an important step forward. However, women's associations in Haiti believe a lot more needs to be done to eradicate this crime.