Protecting the Girl-Child from Sexual Violence in Haiti's Aftermath

16/1/2010 - Amnesty International has highlighted the importance of preventing rape and sexual violence or exploitation in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti this past week.

International human rights organization Amnesty International has called for greater protection of the girl-child in the recovery efforts currently underway to help victims of this week’s Haitian earthquake.

Haitian Amnesty International researcher, Gerardo Ducos, warned aid agencies to consider that “protecting vulnerable groups from sexual violence is as important as providing them with relief.”

Even before the earthquake struck, Ducos notes, Haiti could not adequately protect women and girls from sexual violence. Females’ poverty has been exploited, as men have forced them to exchange sex for things such as rent or food. Other times, the shame of rape or talking about rape and the fear of attackers felt by many victims prevents them from coming forward.

Many public and private research groups, as well as non-governmental, human rights, and women’s organizations have noted a correlation between natural disasters or other humanitarian catastrophes and spikes of sexual violence against women.

Such trends were reportedly observed in Nicaragua, South Asia, and New Orleans after severe natural disasters occurred. According to a 2000 report by the International Labour Organization, some natural disasters in South Asia have been correlated to increases in human trafficking, as traffickers take advantage of distracted law enforcement institutions, social breakdown, and the vulnerability of civilians. However, it is important to note that these trends tend to be more evident in countries where there is a history of widespread sexual violence or gender discrimination, ethnic tensions, or armed conflict.

The New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault states (referencing a document produced by Human Rights Watch) that this problem transcends cultural attitudes toward women. Often, the problem lies in the breakdown of regular societal structure, which leaves populations vulnerable. For refugees and displaced people, for example, a sense of frustration and helplessness can have psychological ramifications leading to anger and violence. It may change the rules of what is deemed “acceptable behaviour.”

Most obviously, it is easy for women and girls to get separated from their families in disaster situations, making them extraordinarily vulnerable targets. Children and women whose homes have been destroyed are especially without protection. As such, the construction of safe and secure shelters is a necessary step for the protection of women and the girl-child from rape and other forms of sexual violence in disaster scenarios.

A 2005 report by the Global Fund for Women further stated that domestic violence tends to escalate during natural disasters (likely in response to stress), and that people become less willing to intervene.

Some organizations, states the Alliance, have already integrated gendered analyses and women’s protection components into their disaster response strategies.