It’s been two years since hell paid Haiti a visit, but for countless women, terror still stalks the ruins. The scars of the January 2010 earthquake are etched on their bodies, in an ever-widening pattern of sexual exploitation.
A crisis of gender-based violence and exploitation is festering–and foreign aid efforts are still failing to protect survivor communities from harm, or to make the criminal justice system more accountable.
Sexual violence and women’s oppression in Haiti predated the disaster. Prior to the quake, surveys showed that gender-based and sexual violence was widespread, and women and children had long bore the brunt of poverty stoked by neoliberal economic policies and political instability. But post-quake conditions have posed unique threats to survivor communities: the lack of safety patrols in camps, the breakdown of an already tattered government structure, and the erosion of social networks that leave women at greater risk. In a recent study of conditions surrounding four internally displaced people’s camps, researchers with the Global Justice Center and Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) estimate that “14 percent of households reported that at least one member of the household had been a victim of sexual violence since the earthquake.” Victims were typically young, female, and deprived of access to food, water and sanitation.
While Haiti’s recovery plods on amid promises of aid and reforms under the new government, the scourge of sexual abuse seems to have been eclipsed by other priorities. “With so little money going to community-based Haitian organizations that know best the problems they face and the solutions to crises, foreign aid has largely failed to address this crisis,” said MADRE’s Executive Director Yifat Susskind.
Authorities talk of reconstruction and repairing a broken infrastructure. Yet a large portion of donated aid remains unspent, and the economy is still crippled. The overarching social breakdown leaves women even more vulnerable to victimization.
Another report by researchers with CHRGJ, Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, City University of New York, along with the advocacy groups MADRE and Haiti-based Commission of Women Victims for Victims (KOFAVIV), examines how sexual exploitation weaves into everyday life in the ravaged communities of Port-au-Prince.
“Survival sex” (referring to the trading of sex for basic resources) has become a common way to get by in an economy that traffics in desperation. Last November and December a research team found that many women and girls had “exchanged sex for food, education or other necessities for themselves and their families.” Unable to secure decent work or housing, women and girls often turn to selling sex for precious resources like “coupons for aid distributions, access to direct aid distributions, cash for work programs, money, or even a single meal,” according to the study. Though many women surveyed said they used survival sex to meet individual needs, some women bartered sex to support their children or pay for schooling. Investigators noted, “Many of the women noted that they would not engage in survival sex if they could find work in either the formal or informal sector.”