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The camps

In Haiti's camps, civilians fight back against sex crimes Add to ...

It was close to midnight and pitch dark in Martine's sheet-cordoned section of the mass tent when she opened her eyes and saw the shape of a man locked on top of her second-youngest daughter.

The willowy nine-year-old was lying motionless on her thin cot.

"What are you doing to my child?"

The sound of Martine's panicked voice didn't break the trance of the man, who she recognized as an adult friend of her son. The darkness spared her a detailed view of what was happening to her daughter, but she knew anyway, and she started to scream.

That startled the attacker, who fled the tent, sprinting through crammed Pinchinat, the walled school soccer field that is Jacmel's largest and most notorious camp for the displaced.

Minutes later, the man was caught and pinned down - not by police, but by a team of civilians assigned to night-time patrol by the camp's citizens committee, a grassroots group devoted to better security for the tent city's 5,000 residents.

Most sex-related crime and violence takes place at night inside the camp, a sprawling field that has only two gas-powered light standards. The cavernous military tents, donated by Venezuela's army, are both a blessing and a curse: They provide shelter from the rains, but they are dark and dangerous at night.

As well, the communal nature of the tents violates international shelter standards, which advocate single-family tents whenever possible. Experts prefer to enforce the separation of men from women and children when families cannot live alone, to avoid the kind of insecurity and violence that has developed at Pinchinat.

With only two Haitian police officers assigned to the camp at a given time, the citizen's committee, called Voluntaires mixte du village Pinchinat, focuses on ensuring the well-being of the most vulnerable residents - women and children.

The welfare of both groups seems to have slipped through the cracks of the patchwork aid system that has been stitched together in meeting rooms across Haiti since the Jan. 12 earthquake.

While there are international meeting "clusters" appointed to deal with broad issues such as shelter, education and logistics, none have focused on the welfare of Haiti's women, who were immersed in a deeply entrenched battle for equality, rights and sexual autonomy long before the earthquake.

Since the disaster, the vulnerability of women and their children has increased noticeably. In Jacmel, sexual assaults and domestic violence have been rising in the city's larger camps for displaced people and families, according to statistics collected by Fanm Deside ("Women Decide"), the only women's-rights group in the city.

On Friday, Amnesty International issued a report imploring the aid community in Haiti and police officials to turn their attention to the rising sexual violence against women and girls in camps.

"Sexual violence is widely present in camps where some of Haiti's most vulnerable live," said Chiara Liguori, an Amnesty researcher who was part of a team that visited eight camps in Port-au-Prince, Jacmel and Leogane. "It was already a major concern in the country before the earthquake, but the situation in which displaced people are living exposes women and girls to even greater risks."

In Jacmel, as in other parts of Haiti, women living in tent encampments still bear the burden of providing food for their families, even though they have no work and few supplies. With the economy stalled, a growing number of desperate women are turning to prostitution for food, or allowing their daughters to do so.

At Pinchinat, a sexual act earns about 25 Haitian gourdes - less than one Canadian dollar - according to Charlotte Charles, director of the camp's citizens committee. It was she who decided, out of frustration and disgust, that combatting sexual crimes against women and children would be the committee's priority, ahead of the many other problems that plague the camp.

"The parents here accept for their children to be prostitutes," Ms. Charles said, adding that a condom-distribution program run by the United Nations at Pinchinat after the earthquake only exacerbated the situation by appearing to condone promiscuous behaviour. "Normally the distribution of condoms is good. But when I give them out here, prostitutes come," she said.

Ms. Charles's ultimate aim is to run classes for the camp women to help train them to support themselves and their families. "If children are well kept, when they come of age, they'll have intercourse based on their own choices, not because they have nothing to eat," she added.

For now, there is no money for such a program. So Ms. Charles is working with Fanm Deside, whose members recently began patrolling the camp's crowded rows of tents to talk with women. They also set up a tent on the soccer field where they conduct daily support-group meetings.

So far, turnouts have been small; meetings are open to all, but aimed at those who have experienced sexual violence, assault or prostituted themselves, said Marie-Ange Noel, the group's director. "Normally at Pinchinat, the females are embarrassed to come forward," she said. "They're afraid they're going to be ridiculed by the other females."

Ms. Noel and her field workers have been building a cache of reports from women in the camp who report that middle-aged and elderly men with money have been visiting Pinchinat to buy sex. They are also tracking several cases similar to that of Martine's daughter; most have not resulted in arrests. "The tents have no light at night. It's difficult for them to be detected," Ms. Noel noted.

Martine said that, two weeks after the attack, her young daughter still wasn't sleeping, talking much or acting like herself. "He was trying to rape her," Martine said in an interview, as the little girl sprawled mutely on her lap.

"She has bruises," Martine said, pausing. "If I had another option, I would leave. We don't feel safe here."

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