We’re all familiar with the human and environmental tolls that immediately follow natural disasters. But there’s one aftereffect of hurricanes and earthquakes that often goes overlooked: rape. In Haiti, the aftershocks of the January 12th earthquake continue in Internally Displaced Person camps as men rape women. According to a story in Women’s eNews, aid workers in the Champ-de-Mars camp in Port-au-Prince – home to 50,000 internal refugees and pictured above – field reports of rape on a daily basis. And United Nations workers say that sexual violence has increased in recent months.
There is no concrete data on the number of rapes that have occurred since the earthquake. Haiti’s formal tracking system, created by the United Nations Development Fund for Women, was destroyed with the quake. But the uptick in rapes is a typical phenomenon in the wake of a natural disaster.
After Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, aid workers cited an increase in the number of rapes. Exact statistics, however, are difficult to come by because police officers refused to document rapes that happened outside of their jurisdictions. This meant that women raped in New Orleans and then evacuated to Houston could not report their assaults with Houston police. While aid workers scrambled to piece together a picture of post-Katrina sexual assault, one high-profile rape brought national attention to the epidemic. Charmaine Neville, daughter of musician Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers, recounted her rape on Baton Rouge television, saying that she and several other women were assaulted after they sought refuge on the roof of a school.
“I found some police officers. I told them that a lot of us women had been raped down there by guys who had come (into)… the neighborhood where we were, that were helping us to save people. But other men, and they came and they started raping women and… and they started killing them,” Neville said. “And I don’t know who these people were. I’m not going to tell you I know who they were because I don’t. But what I want people to understand is that if we had not been left down there like the animals that they were treating us like, all of those things wouldn’t have happened.”
According to the New York City Alliance on Sexual Assault, rape following natural disasters can be explained by a number of reasons – some of them preventable. First there’s the fact that societal support mechanisms – social norms that stigmatize rape and crime, for instance – dissolve during crises. Then there’s the fact that psychological strain and deep-seated sexist attitudes lead some men to see unaccompanied women in refugee and IDP camps as public sexual property. But other causes may be more easily prevented. Refugee camps are often hastily constructed out of necessity. That means that large groups of unrelated people sleep in the same rooms, creating opportunities for sexual assault. Additionally, the lack of police officers in refugee camps means that crimes go unpunished.
In Haiti, the United Nations is addressing the rise in sexual violence by sending a unit of 130 female Bangladeshi soldiers to protect Haitian women and serve as their allies. While similar deployments have been successful in post-war Liberia, Haiti’s anti-rape workers remain skeptical that this will stem the tide of sexual assault. “What we need is security,” Marie Eramithe Delva, a co-coordinator at a Haitian grassroots female empowerment organization, told Women’s eNews. “Right now we have none and the rapes are happening not only at night, but in the daytime.”
Image: BBC World Service