Night falls, and one by one, the candles flicker on in the camps – tiny pinpricks of light in a city clad in darkness.
As the sun retreats, the muffled cries begin. And the women creep deeper into their flimsy shelters of bed sheets and plastic tarps, praying for the morning to come.
The women here talk of ‘mauvais esprits’ (bad spirits) stalking the survivors of the devastating earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people in Haiti Jan. 12. Stories of rape are spreading like wildfire through the camps, where hundreds of thousands of people are huddled together under flimsy shelters, sleeping cheek by jowl.
“It happens at night,” said Hannah, a nurse who sleeps in a makeshift tent in a crowded camp in Pacot, one of the most dangerous spontaneous camps that has sprung up in the city of Port-au-Prince after the quake. She speaks softly, tilting her head so as not to be overheard.
“Young men come with weapons, and rape the women. They haven’t reported it, because the services don’t exist anymore. The hospitals, the police – everything was destroyed in the earthquake.”
Cases of rape and sexual violence were high even before the earthquake, and rates of violence have increased after previous disasters. Darkened streets due to lack of electricity, crowded makeshift camps and unprotected bathing and toilet areas leave women and girls particularly vulnerable to harassment and sexual violence. Husbands and brothers try to provide protection, and women pass whispered warnings to each other.
But every night as darkness falls, the terror starts anew.
“We cry. We sleep. But it is a half-sleep; we are always waiting for something to happen,” said Hannah. “In my family, there is always someone keeping watch outside while the others sleep. I have a five-year-old daughter, and I’m terrified for her. They have no pity. There are men who rape girls as young as six months old in Haiti.”
In the rural areas around Léogâne, women talk of the added fear of escaped convicts from the collapsed prison roaming the countryside.
“At night, we are afraid. We hear stories of rapes in the camp next to ours,” said 23-year-old Rachelle, casting a furtive look over her shoulder. “There’s nothing we can do. There’s no protection. Men have started following us to the street to watch us bathe. We are afraid they will come back at night.”
The women have simple requests: tents to be safe, bathing facilities for women in a well-lit area, separate toilets for men and women. CARE is working to meet those needs, but it is a long-term solution to the plague of sexual violence in Haiti that is crucial.
“In the short-term, we need to make confidential clinical services available to treat survivors of rape including psychosocial support and security. Women need to know where they can get these services. At the same time we must do all we can to prevent it. Sexual violence was a problem in Haiti before the earthquake and we know it increases in these types of situations,” said Janet Meyers, Senior Advisor for Sexual and Reproductive Health in Emergencies. “After the earthquake, everyone is sleeping in camps. They have enough problems, without this fear as well.”
CARE is working to re-establish reporting procedures, and ensuring confidential, quality services, including clinical management of rape, emergency contraception and psychosocial support, are available to treat survivors of rape and sexual violence.
But for women like Hannah and Rachelle, the time needed to make those changes are measured in the slow passing of each dark Haiti night, waiting for the mauvais esprits to pass by their tent.