I visited a camp for homeless earthquake survivors in Haiti–one of many, but this one stands out. Mud. Torn tarps. Tents branded with an array of aid logos. A few wild dogs on the outskirts. And thousands of people, everywhere.
I spoke to so many women: How are you? What are your biggest concerns? Do you feel safe? What can we do to make things better here? I don’t ask directly about violence; instead, I let women come up with their own priorities and concerns without my prompting. I have not yet been the direct recipient of stories of sexual violence.
If I were to hear such stories, I would urge victims to get help within 72 hours. I can offer them a list of NGOs and medical centers. My role as a gender-based violence coordinator with the U.N. humanitarian response is to ensure that the women here have complete information and to protect them as much as I can. We’re trying to be proactive in terms of prevention: distributing solar flashlights, increasing security patrols and disseminating radio announcements against violence.
Sometimes I’m saddened by the fact that I’ll never be out of a job–because sexual violence happens everywhere in the world. Of course certain conditions contribute to an increase in sexual violence, such as in the U.S. following Hurricane Katrina. In camps in Haiti, these ingredients are in place. Sexual violence was a problem before the earthquake, and now social networks and services have broken down, camps are cramped, civil society is destroyed and the population is traumatized.
You’re probably wondering why no one has reported a rape to me, considering recent news stories on rape in the camps.
The fact is, rape is under-reported everywhere; Haiti is no different, particularly given the devastation of basic social services. People always want to know the numbers, but any data would be incomplete. As I see it, even one rape is too many, and figures on reported incidents at this time tell us very little about the actual situation. UNFPA and other agencies have been working to revive the Haitian system of reporting gender-based violence incidents, which utilizes a national form for data collection and a centralized database, but you can imagine how difficult that task is amidst the destruction. So we focus on the immediate: disseminating information on available medical and psychosocial support, and prioritizing the rights and choices of survivors.
I will resist the urge to sensationalize this issue, as many media reports have done, but certainly it is serious: We don’t need numbers to tell us that. Our task now is to be proactive about prevention and help women access the services they need. We would let Haitian women down if we did any less.
Read more Ms. coverage of sexual violence issues here.