An 18-year-old woman nearly swept away by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami grabbed the hand of a man who reached out to rescue her. Then he raped her on a riverbank.
Days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, another woman slept on the roof of a school to escape the rising waters. She was awoken by a knife at her throat and a voice saying, “If you don’t do what I want, I’m gonna kill you.”
After the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a woman who slept in a displacement camp was raped by a man who sliced through the flimsy tarp of her tent.
These stories point to a pattern. After disaster, women face an increased risk of violence, including rape and sexual assault. In the chaos and loss of social cohesion that routinely follow disaster, women and girls in places as far afield as Pakistan, Nicaragua or the United States are rendered more vulnerable to sexual attack.
Conditions of vulnerability become entrenched when the post-disaster days and weeks turn into months and years, and the alienation people feel in a displacement camp becomes normalized. Women living beyond the reaches of the camp are also threatened by violence triggered by deteriorating conditions.
It’s Gender, Not Culture
Sexual violence does not increase in the wake of disaster because a given place has a unique or embedded culture of rape, as has sometimes been suggested about Haiti. Rather, the problem is that almost every culture partakes in a “rape culture,” and so post-disaster conditions—for example, in the tent camps for internally displaced people in Haiti—create an environment of threat. This threat could be, and too often is, replicated anywhere in the world.
Identifying “Haitian men” or “Haitian culture” as the source of violence against women only serves to dehumanize Haitians. It also deflects attention from factors, such as poverty and displacement, that influence the prevalence of gender–based violence. In fact, culture alone explains very little. It is a context but not a cause or a useful explanation for violence, whether in Haiti or anywhere else. It makes much more sense to examine gender—a system of power relations whose number one enforcement mechanism is recourse to violence against women. In fact, shifting the focus from culture to gender reveals a system of power that functions worldwide.
Yet, too often, we have seen Haitian men be vilified as possessing dangerous proclivities towards violence. This depiction draws on racist stereotypes and ignores the crucial role that Haitian men have played as allies in the fight against rape. For example, in one displacement camp, young Haitian men have organized with the grassroots women’s organization KOFAVIV into volunteer patrols to help guard against attacks. In the camp where the patrols have been active, rape has declined. Meanwhile, the young men involved in the patrols are engaging in weekly human rights trainings with KOFAVIV.
In fact, the efforts of grassroots women’s groups to rebuild communities may be the only source of protection available to displaced women and their families. After the earthquake in Haiti, MADRE’s partner organization KOFAVIV worked tirelessly to provide for urgent needs for food, clothing and shelter. But they also immediately recognized the need to re-weave frayed social fabric as a way to protect women against violence. To do so, they cleared a small plot in one camp and set up a tarp for shade, giving people living in cramped yet isolated tents a place to begin to rebuild the community ties they had lost.
In the many years that MADRE has worked with grassroots women’s groups to respond to disasters, we have seen this approach mirrored in the efforts of our partners. In Sri Lanka, after the tsunami in 2004, we worked with the organization INFORM to provide trauma counseling and temporary shelters for families. In Nicaragua, after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, we worked with Indigenous women leaders who brought aid to families in isolated rural areas, when some large-scale emergency response teams didn’t even know where Indigenous villages were. All of these efforts helped to maintain and re-weave essential community ties.
Moving Beyond Survival
As post-disaster reconstruction progresses, the very women who are pulling their communities back from the brink are often excluded from decision-making. Displacement camps that are set up or managed with little attention to the needs of women and girls exacerbate the violent threats they face. In Haiti, a lack of lighting and security patrols has put women at severe risk of attack when they walk through the camps. Discriminatory attitudes among law enforcement or medical service providers have meant that women endure stigma and hostility when they seek to report their rape. Meanwhile, grassroots women’s groups seeking to influence the reconstruction agenda have struggled to be heard.
That’s why our partners in Haiti decided to appeal to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the biggest human rights court in the region. They petitioned the Commission to demand medical and psychological care for rape survivors, security and lighting in the camps, training for public officials responding to complaints of sexual violence, special police units to investigate rape, and the full participation of grassroots women in policy-making to combat sexual violence. The Commission granted these demands, mapping out an essential blueprint for addressing rape.
The Commission’s decision reconfirmed that the Haitian government is legally obligated to protect its citizens from violence. But it is not enough to say that Haiti should meet its legal obligations towards its citizens. In order to do this, Haiti needs resources and the autonomy that any sovereign government must have to respond effectively to the needs of its people. But Haiti has been denied both resources and sovereignty by policies dating back generations, such as military occupation, demands for the repayment of massive, illegitimate debt incurred by the Duvalier regimes, and US-backed coups that deposed popularly elected leaders.
This legacy of exploitation means that Haiti is owed a moral debt by the international community, and one way to repay that debt is for the donor states to commit to rebuilding Haiti on the basis of human rights, including women’s rights.
The Commission’s blueprint provides the perfect starting point for doing just this. All governments, starting with the Haitian government itself, should endorse the measures contained in the Commission’s decision.
Women’s lives depend on this. We must implement these measures, for the woman living in a displacement camp who is too afraid to walk alone at night. This is for the woman whose home was spared by the earthquake but who now won’t let her daughter out of her sight. This is for any woman anywhere in the world whose life was upended by disaster and violence—or for the women who will someday face a disaster.
By demanding the implementation of the measures put forward in the Commission’s ruling, we can change international law in favor of women’s human rights and set a legal precedent for disaster response to be used in other places at other times. We strengthen a body of tools and strategies that can be put in place to protect the rights of women in Haiti, inside and outside of the camps, and women around the world.
Take action: Sign our open letter calling for the Haitian government and donor states to implement the urgent steps in the Commission’s decision to protect Haitian women and girls from violence.