Sunday, April 22, 2012

Post Earthquake Haiti and gender-based violence

A censored post from March 2010 when I visited Haiti after the earthquake there. I was reprimanded for publishing this on my private blog. Now that I no longer work there, I've decided to re-publish it.

March 2010

I went out near Cite de Soliel today to visit an obstetric hospital that we have been working in for three weeks. I was completely dismayed at the conditions! I walked in and saw a woman delivering her child in front of me (no curtain, no cloths, she was naked and her “privates” were on display) and the baby was dead so the staff had to put it on the floor, I was told. Another woman right next to our office was lying there moaning covered in blood and gore and no one was around her. I felt like I had walked into hell. The government staff here don't give a shit about the women. The agency I work for is desperately trying to motivate them, improve the quality, and try to prevent some maternal and natal deaths. I can’t imagine recommending that we try to even set up a sexual violence program in a hostile setting like this. Our medical coordinator told me that if they put up curtains to screen the privacy of the women delivering, they’d be in worse trouble because they staff would ignore them and not even see them.

Then I went across the street to the displaced camp across the road from the hospital in the old airport- there were young girls bathing naked outside, horrible gangster types swaggering around the camps sexually harrassing our female water/Sanitation engineer. There was a prison break in Haiti during the earthquake and thousands of extremely violent prisoners busted out and headed back to their old haunts. There are daily battles for turfs in the new camps. Our brave Italian woman goes into the camps almost every day – walking around supervising our staff digging latrines and putting in showers. But the gangsters threaten our staff and collapse the latrines at night so we’ll have to pay them to rebuild it. She said she saw a lack of women around and she thought there might be a police action going down that afternoon and the women and children hide to keep from getting caught in the crossfire between the gangsters and the police.

Someone has to get rid of those thugs but the Haitian police are almost as corrupt as the gangsters. We actually had police come into our tent distribution and steal tents from the women and children that we were distributing them to. Our current strategy is to try to encourage the community to resist them. – But they are the victims and victims, by definition are powerless – how can they be expected to resist? We’ll see what we can do – we don’t want to try to push the police to come in there because innocent women and children will be shot. I guess we'll find a way but I think this is where we should be – these people had nothing before the earthquake and they have less now.

I truly believe the adolescent girls are the most at risk in this setting - it's not Darfur where they are raping any woman that goes out to gather firewood. They are yanking young women out of the tents at night if they get "strange ideas in their head from watching them bathe" as the women put it. We're trying like hell to do good Water and Sanitation projects because this issue impacts women the most. I like the idea of a woman's health clinic. If we could focus on family planning, reproductive health, STIs, mental health, and SGBV, we could make a difference. Where we've had mental health programs in similar settings, we've successfully identified SGBV victims- they often show up from the "stress" of dealing with their children or husbands. Even if we're unable to overcome their fear of disclosing that they've been raped or unable to see the numbers everyone thinks is out there, slowly they might come to trust us and seek help. And the rapes aren't going to go away in Haiti. They were there before the earthquake and will be there afterward.

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