Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

Report Exposes “Survival Sex Trade” in Post-Earthquake Haiti

NEW YORK, Jan 12 2012 (IPS) - Eighteen-year-old “Kettlyne”, a Haitian orphan living in the rubble-strewn Croix Deprez camp – one of the many remaining tent-cities that houses refugees from the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake – is unable to feed her three-year-old daughter.

Starving and alone, the girl says she has resorted to exchanging sex for food scraps, selling her body to older men who routinely beat and abuse her, often refuse to wear condoms, and sometimes don’t even pay her at the end of the night.

Though Kettlyne dreams of returning to school and someday saving up for her daughter’s education as well, she says resignedly, “If my baby is crying for food, I am obligated to do anything.”

Kettlyne is one of numerous interviewees in a joint report released Thursday by MADRE, the Commission of Women Victims for Victims (KOFAVIV), the International Women’s Human Rights (IWHR) Clinic at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law, the Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law (GJC) and the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at UC Hastings College of the Law (CGRS).

Coinciding with the two-year anniversary of the disaster that rendered more than a million Haitians homeless and plunged the country’s teeming displacement camps into a dark period of lawlessness, the report comes amidst an outgoing wave of humanitarian workers, NGOs and international observers from the island, with the message that, though time has passed, the crisis for Haitian women and girls continues unabated.

Deep-Rooted Problems

Villard-Appolon also called attention to long-term unemployment that pushed scores of men into drug abuse and spun a web of economic desperation over Haiti, long before the quake.

"(The media and the government should) pay more attention to the rural areas of Haiti: in the provinces, there is nothing, people do not have access to education, health services or even have the means to generate income for themselves," she said.

"They have little opportunity to farm and sell produce. Cheap imported goods have flooded the market, making it hard for them to make money from their products. The issue of deforestation is a vicious cycle: trees were once cut down and burnt to make coal to sell for money in the markets. But now, there are no more trees, so many families have lost their only means of income."

While the rape epidemic that swept the camps after the quake has been well documented, a second and equally horrifying crisis remains hidden, human rights activists say.

“Displaced women and girls are being forced by circumstance into survival sex,” Marie Eramithe Delva, co-founder of KOFAVIV, said Thursday. “It is an epidemic, but one that has gotten little attention from the Haitian government or international community.”

Roughly 300,000 women and girls still languish in makeshift shelters in and around the capital city of Port-au-Prince, places where all existing social structures – from families and homes to schools and medical facilities – have broken down in the face of extreme poverty, hopelessness and hunger, leaving scores vulnerable and desperate.

“With international organisations moving out, taking with them the few temporary services that had been available after the earthquake, girls as young as 13 years old are trading sex for the equivalent of half a sandwich, a few U.S. dollars, or access to education,” Lisa Davis, MADRE human rights advocacy director and co-author of the report, told IPS.

After conducting a series of in-depth interviews with women and girls between the ages of 18 to 32 living in the Champ de Mars, Christ Roi and Croix Deprez displacement camps, and in the neighbourhood of Carrefour, the report concluded that none participating in this new- found “economy of survival” described themselves as commercial sex workers. Rather, their actions are a “coping mechanism” in the face of supreme hardships.

Most of the sexual transactions take place between young girls and men who hold positions of power in the camps: administrators of cash- for-work programmes, managers of food supplies and especially men in charge of educational programmes.

According to a 2012 UNICEF report, Haiti’s educational infrastructure was already in shambles before 2010. Still, the earthquake took with it over 4,000 educational establishments, stripping roughly 2.5 million students – well over half of Haiti’s four million youth under the age of 18 – of a chance for education.

A gaping lack of medical facilities has seriously exacerbated the problem.

Last year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published its findings from a series of interviews, revealing that few women had access to prenatal or obstetric care.

Though all of the 128 women interviewed claimed that they wanted to deliver in a hospital, well over half gave birth outside of a medical institution, without a skilled medical attendant present, while many delivered their children on the mud floors of tents or in the streets on the way to the hospital.

Though no reliable data has yet been collected on the consequences of transactional sex, Davis speculated, “I can only imagine that it’s going to make women and girls much more vulnerable to HIV and other (sexually transmitted diseases). Already, Haiti has the worst HIV rate in the hemisphere in terms of numbers.”

The deficiency in medical care also means more illegal abortions and higher rates of maternal and infant mortality. Already, 3,000 Haitian women and girls die annually from complications in pregnancy and childbirth, so the possibility of a further deterioration in maternal and child health could spell disaster for the small, struggling country.

While it is vital to shed light on the immediate crisis and the short-term needs of the affected population, the long-term causes and consequences of this epidemic remain of central concern for many experts.

Economic underdevelopment caused largely by western-imposed structural adjustment policies, misdirected or mismanaged foreign aid and a constitution that has long ignored the tragedy of gender-based violence, particularly in times of political instability, have all fermented into the current crisis.

“Grassroots organizations like KOFAVIV do a lot of work to fight GBV, sexual violence, and survival sex; however, our voices are not always heard,” Malya Villard-Appolon, co-founder of KOFAVIV, told IPS. “We are rarely included in decision-making processes so government agencies that have the resources to enact change do not hear our perspectives and reports from the ground.”

“Women have not received equal treatment in government positions,” she added. “Of 17 ministers, only three are women.”

Villard-Appolon repeatedly stressed the need for a more comprehensive and inclusive educational framework for girls who have long been disenfranchised even at the familial level, staying home while their brothers are sent off to school.

“Although President (Michel) Martelly has stated his commitment to enforcing the constitutional right to a free primary education in Haiti, this is far from the reality,” Blaine Bookey, staff attorney at the CGRS and co-author of the report, told IPS. “We are concerned about reports from the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee that millions collected in taxes for educational purposes are unaccounted for.”

She also made various recommendations for moving past the crisis, including allocating more resources to grassroots coalitions, restructuring the government and judicial system to better tackle sexual violence and exploitation of all kinds and exerting more control over reconstruction funds such that aid doesn’t simply flow back into the coffers of international NGOs and private contractors or corporations.

“Survival sex will not end until Haitian women and girls can access what they need to live,” Margaret Satterthwaite, professor of Clinical Law for the GJC, said Thursday.

“Haitian women want economic opportunities and the capacity to access basic resources. The international community should work closely with the Haitian government to create jobs, extend microcredit to women and provide free education to all.”

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