Despite efforts by the Haitian government, the international community and local activists, women and girls are being raped in some 1,300 makeshift camps, often by armed attackers. What steps are being taken to address crime and protect against rape in Haiti? What lessons can be learned for future post-disaster humanitarian responses?

Event Summary: Sexual Violence in Haiti, A Growing Security Concern

Since an earthquake leveled the city of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on January 12, 2010, more than 1.3 million Haitians have congregated in tent encampments in and around the capital. Complex problems that existed before the earthquake -- including crime and gender-based violence, access to justice and widespread poverty -- have been exacerbated by the earthquake The initial emergency response to the crisis was largely successful, but efforts to remove rubble, and provide temporary housing and jobs have slowed to a crawl. Crime, particularly sexual violence against women and children living in makeshift settlements, has increased significantly.

To discuss the situation of women and children who have been victims of gender-based violence, the United States Institute of Peace held the panel discussion “Security After the Quake? Addressing Violence and Rape in Haiti” on August 31.

“Girls and women are among the most venerable in Haiti,” said Kathleen Kuehnast, USIP gender adviser and moderator of the panel. “Sexual violence is a security issue.”

The panel included Lina Abirafeh, gender-based violence coordinator for the United Nations Humanitarian Response; Lisa Davis human rights advocacy director for MADRE; USIP scholar Louis-Alexandre Berg; and USIP’s Haiti Program Director Robert Perito.

Perito said Haiti has many challenges ahead in the next few months. For examples, the country has a national election on November 28, 2010, and international assistance is lagging. Additionally, Haiti’s law enforcement is not able to adequately address the amount of criminal activity in the country. Berg said there are only 9,000 Haitian National Police officers in a country with a population of close to nine million people. There are simply too few policemen to adequately patrol the estimated 1,300 tent settlements in Port-au-Prince. Current problems of the settlements -- such as overcrowding, lack of privacy, and weakened family and community structures -- render women and girls vulnerable to rape and other sexual violence. Additionally, more than 220,000 people died in the earthquake, leaving large numbers of orphans to wander the settlements. The Haitian National Police have been reluctant to patrol within tent encampments and have been unable to control gender based violence. .

USIP’s Haiti Program, led by Robert Perito, holds monthly Working Group meetings that focus on developments in Haiti and U.S.-Haitian relations. Perito’s recent Peace Brief, “Haiti After the Quake: Six Months and Counting ,” discusses the critical issues facing Haiti, and identifies the existing opportunities to rebuild a better Haiti. The group has been meeting with those concerned about the situation in Haiti since 2006. In 2008, members of the working group began visiting Haiti to provide conflict resolution training. The group authored a Peace Brief in December 2009, “Prospects for Haiti's New Government,” which discussed the economic challenges Haiti faced before the earthquake.

Since 2008, USIP’s Rule of Law Initiative has been providing technical assistance to the drafters of Haiti’s new Criminal Procedure Code. The new codes will replace existing laws that date from the early 19th century.

“In particular the USIP project ‘Model Codes for Post-Conflict Criminal Justice’ is proving a valuable tool for the drafters,” said USIP Senior Rule of Law Adviser Vivienne O’Connor, who has been involved in developing Haiti’s criminal code. “The Model Codes present legal codes—consistent with international human rights standards—that reform actors can use to create, overhaul, update and plug gaps in the criminal laws in post-conflict states.”

More than 5,100 convicted criminals escaped after the quake, and only 627 have been recaptured, according to Haitian National Police reports. Berg, who is researching the crime trends in Haiti, said some of these criminals and other gangs kidnap and rape women and children. Often the criminals force women and children to provide shelter and food, while they hide from police. The criminals move from settlement to settlement undetected since the police filter in an out of settlements on their security patrols.

With elections less than three months away and many government buildings heavily damaged or destroyed, the country falls short in the ability to alleviate the criminal activity in Haiti and provide its people with permanent or even transitional housing. There are hopes that elections will result in legitimate Haitian government that can make critical decisions concerning reconstruction and interact effectively with the international community.

International funding is not the only thing which can amend the security situation and the people of Haiti recognize this. In some tent communities, grassroots organizations developing within the settlements are providing basic public safety services. The groups assist women and children by standing guard in the tent villages and escorting them when they need to go out at night, or even just take trips to the bathroom. Although the groups are not armed, in areas where they are present sexual violence is decreasing.

Davis, an attorney who works for MADRE, an organization that does global work on behalf of women’s rights, recently compiled a report on women and rape in Haiti since the earthquake. To find out more about preventative measures and how victims of gender-based violence could be helped, Davis and a delegation from MADRE traveled to Haiti to interview 50 victims of rape or attempted rape. These women and girls were referred to the delegation by KOFAVIV and FAVILEK, two grassroots women’s organizations working in displacement settlements and poor neighborhoods within Port‐au‐Prince. The women complained they rarely saw police, and the police they saw were usually driving by or in patrol vehicles. Many organizations, including the U.N., have distributed whistles and flashlights as tools to deter sexual predators—however, community training to understand the meaning of a whistle signal has not accompanied the distribution. Many of the women interviewed said the uncoordinated effort and ineffective responses by police do little to halt the persistent threat of sexual violence.

“The majority of rape survivors we interviewed also said there is a lack of medical care,” Davis said. “The women were also scared of their assailants retaliating against them.”

Women who are raped are often afraid to tell the police because they are ashamed of the stigma associated with rape. Those who do tell police are often told to come back when they can identify their assailant, or catch them.

“The reported cases I think under estimate the actual situation,” said Abirafeh, who just finished several months working in Haiti. “Gender-based violence is likely because of a lack of law and order in Haiti.”

Survivors and women interviewed by Abirafeh and Davis noted the lack of lighting, privacy even to bathe, the ability to easily break into tents, and the limited police presence. Abirafeh noted that the women she has interviewed in Haiti said they wanted safe spaces and shelters, access to financial opportunities, and new opportunities.

Before the earthquake, the Haiti’s Ministry of Women’s Condition and Women’s Rights (MCFDF) was already hard at work attempting to better the lives of women. In 2011, Haiti’s National Action Plan to End Violence against Women, a five-year MCFDF women’s rights initiative, will come to an end. The plan created a system for preventing, responding to and tracking gender-based violence by setting up community assistance programs for rape victims.

Many of those involved in the creation of the plan, including Haitian feminist leaders Anne-Marie Coriolan, Magalie Marcelin and Myriam Merlet, the chief of Staff MCFDF, died in the earthquake. Since then, morale has depleted among women collaborating on these initiatives.

Currently, the MCFDF is attempting to pick up where they were teaming up with the United Nations, as well as grassroots groups and other nongovernmental organizations. Initiatives and campaigns to address gender-based violence have begun to disseminate messages about the impacts of sexual violence, as well as resources and support for victims of sexual violence. They also are providing lawyers and judicial assistance. The grassroots organizations have made strides where the police forces have not, by leading women to these resources and reducing opportunities for attackers.

Gender-based violence a priority concern for the development in Haiti. If not addressed, gender-based violence will continue to affect several generations of Haitians.

USIP’s Haiti Working Group continues to draw attention to the challenges created by Haiti’s earthquake. As local women and civil society begin to partner with aid organizations, and as the Haitian police force grows in numbers, it is critical to focus on the security of tent settlements, since they may be the only shelter available for the displaced for a long time to come.


  • Lina Abirafeh
    Gender-Based Violence Coordinator
    United Nations Humanitarian Response
  • Louis-Alexandre Berg
    Peace Scholar
    U.S. Institute of Peace
  • Lisa Davis
    Human Rights Advocacy Director
  • Robert Perito
    Director, Haiti Program
    U.S. Institute of Peace
  • Kathleen Kuehnast, Moderator
    Gender Advisor, Gender and Peacebuilding Initiative, Centers of Innovation
    U.S. Institute of Peace

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