Shockingly high levels of violence against women in Haiti forced the U.N. to send peacekeepers to the Caribbean country in 2004.
The country while not in a state of war is one of the world's most unstable. Kidnappings, criminal violence, gang warfare and violent armed confrontation with the U.N. Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) has increased the number of reported cases of sexual violence against women and girls.
Data collected informally by local non-governmental organisations, and the humanitarian Medicins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) has revealed an alarming spike in sexual violence last year. The number of cases of raped women and girls has increased 40 percent from 1,100 cases in 2007 to 1,600 in 2008.
The big difference, according to the executive secretary of the Haitian Violence Against Women National Group, Nicole Magloire, is that women now feel "more protected to report", she told IPS.
"Before it was more difficult for women to denounce violence and sexual abuse, because of the taboos that still surrounded this issue and the fear of persecution by the perpetrators. Now, women feel more protected to report/denounce cases of violence and partially for this reason we are receiving more cases," she explains.
Women are urged to report rape and sexual abuse to the police, public and private hospitals, non-governmental organisations and the International Tribunal for Violence Against Women in Haiti.
Since 2006, Haiti's Ministry of Women's Affairs and Women's Rights and the gender unit of MINUSTAH, has been implementing a five-year National Plan to Combat Violence against Women and implement CEDAW.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission of 7,000 military and 2,050 police personnel in Haiti is tasked to combat violence against women. Its gender unit is focused on capacity building and protection of women.
"One of our main objectives is to provide assistance and ensure participation of Haitian women in political decision making and the electoral processes. With a stronger presence in the political arena, women could help to reduce gender violence by promoting gender-sensitive policies and advocacy activities," Natalie Ben Zakour Man, gender affairs officer at MINUSTAH told IPS.
Gender training and awareness of women's rights are part of the instruction for MINUSTAH personnel before deployment in Haiti. In November 2007, the U.N. was mired in a scandal of sexual abuse and exploitation perpetrated by the Sri Lankan battalion of MINUSTAH. Some 108 Sri Lankan soldiers were repatriated for alleged sexual exploitation and abuse of minors.
The U.N. reckons a better way to address gender violence in a mission country would be to deploy more female civilian, military and police. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged member states to send more women peacekeepers on the occasion of the International Day of Peacekeepers, May 29.
According to the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations, worldwide women make up only 8 percent of the UN police and 2 percent of its military personnel.
Among the 18 countries that the peacekeepers are deployed in, Haiti has one of the lowest percentages of women blue helmets. Here 21 percent of all civilian U.N. staff are women, but women soldiers in MINUSTAH are a mere 1.5 percent while women in the police are 5.5 percent.
U.N. Police (UNPOL) Gender Officer, Solange Guilavogui, who has years of experience working on gender violence in Guinea, told IPS that member states should send more policewomen to the mission.
"It is essential to work for increasing the number of policewomen and military within the U.N. mission in Haiti by creating and promoting polices and encouraging more women to apply for the available positions," she said.
Part of UNPOL mission is to support and provide training to Haitian police to respond better to violence against women and girls and to increase the number of specially trained female personnel.
As a result of these efforts, Haitian policewomen are now roughly 14 percent of the country's 8,000 strong police.
Collective sexual violence is endemic in Haiti. "When I was in charge of the sexual crimes unit at MINUSTAH, I was involved in a case of sexual violence against a girl of 14 years. Fifteen men abused her," says Guilavogui. Sixty percent of rapes reported in 2008 were girls under 18.
Official figures indicate that the majority of sexual abuses last year were against girls between four and 12 years. They now represent the main target of the new wave of sexual violence and rape in one of the poorest country in the world.
Local women rights activists hope now that the 324 million-dollar loan for 2009-2010, announced last April by the International Monetary Found (IMF) and the World Bank, will be used also to reduce the gender-based violence by empowering local organisations, hospitals and police to better address this horrifying problem that continues to impoverish this threatened country.