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At a glance: Haiti

Confronting gender-based violence, and changing perceptions, in Haiti after the quake

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 20 October 2010 – Terlena Day-Isaac, 25, makes her way up a hill in the Terrain Acra camp in the Port-au-Prince. She is a staff member with the American Refugee Committee (ARC) the UNICEF partner that is teaching Haitian women and girls about their rights with regard to gender-based violence – a term that encompasses domestic violence, forced prostitution, sexual assault and rape.

VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent MP Nunan reports on efforts to change attitudes about gender-based violence in post-earthquake Haiti.  Watch in RealPlayer


Ms. Day-Isaac stops at one shack in the camp, which has been home to thousands of people living in shacks and tents since Haiti’s earthquake in January. Outside the door – a mere piece of scrap metal – she explains some of the realities for women living in a camp.

“Imagine living in a house like this. A man can just pull the metal away and get into the house. Or if we’re living under the tents, they can take a razor blade and get to the girl. So we don’t have security,” says Ms. Day-Isaac.

Living in fear

“In Haiti, there is a history of rape and other forms of sexual violence and exploitation being used as a political weapon against communities to subdue them through fear and gendered mistrust,” notes Mendy Marsh, a UNICEF specialist on gender-based violence in emergencies, in a study that she wrote this past summer. The earthquake and the scores of tent cities that now mark Haiti’s capital have brought this threat of gender-based violence into even sharper relief, adds Ms. Marsh.

© UNICEF video
At Terrain Acra camp for displaced earthquake victims In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, an instructor leads the discussion in a women's class on perceptions of gender-based violence.

For Ms. Day-Isaac, life in a camp has created new rhythms to the danger facing women and girls. She has noticed, for example, that men in the camp tend to become aggressive when a group of them go to bathe, outdoors, at a common tap.

Even before the earthquake, figures for the incidence of rapes and sexual assault in Haiti were difficult if not impossible to come by. Women fear stigmatization for reporting a rape or assault, or else – because of a long-held distrust of police – they simply believe that nothing will come of it.

Still, UNICEF believes sex crimes have increased amidst the harsh living conditions that have prevailed here since the earthquake. One underlying problem is the sheer physical discomfort of living in a tent or shack that can be stifling hot – frighteningly flimsy, as hurricane season bears down on the Caribbean island nation. Men can feel disempowered or disenfranchised after losing their homes and livelihoods in the earthquake, and some may take out their frustrations on women and girls.

Security measures

“The situation is difficult for everyone – men, boys, women and girls,” says Sunita Palekar, another UNICEF gender-based-violence specialist.

© UNICEF video
Harsh and insecure conditions in camps for the displaced in the Haitian earthquake zone have increased the risk of violence and sexual assault against women and girls.

“Men don’t have access to livelihoods. They aren’t able to provide for their families,” adds Ms. Palekar. “But this also increases the opportunities for violence to take place … and women and girls are particularly vulnerable to that. Many women and girls are separated and here alone. This lack of social structure, a network and family support also makes women and girls more vulnerable.”

UNICEF is working with MINUSTAH, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti, to step up practical measures that will increase security for women and girls, such as improving lighting in camps and increasing patrols by peacekeepers. UNICEF is also working with the Ministries of Health and Justice to build an improved system for women to report rape without fear of retribution - and with confidence that their reports will be taken seriously.

Changing attitudes

In addition, UNICEF is tackling a more amorphous challenge: altering Haitian men’s perceptions about masculinity, women and violence. As Ms. Marsh points out in her study, ideas linking masculinity to violence and domination are a learned habit. Men’s and boys’ attitudes are influenced by the perception that being ‘manly’ implies a willingness to commit violence against women, even if the individual man or boy personally believes that violence is wrong.

“There is too much tolerance in this country around violence. They say, ‘It’s always happened. It’s like that,’” says UNICEF Country Director Françoise Gruloons-Ackermans. “In the camps, it’s about training, counselling, about raising awareness, but it’s also about bringing new innovative prevention.”

This effort includes a new educational campaign to change perceptions about masculinity that men and boys learn from an early age. Classes challenge them to formulate new definitions of masculinity based on their own beliefs: that violence against women is wrong, for example, and that intervening to prevent violence and supporting its victims are practices to be admired.

‘They don’t have to be victims’

For women – who learn to be victims of sexual assault, rape and other crimes, just as men and boys learn to inflict them – classes focus on teaching them exactly what actions constitute violence.

In a plywood classroom lined with benches, teacher Mavina Estenovil from the ARC stands in front of a group of about 20 young women and girls. “Can you tell me what physical violence is? I need some details on physical violence,” she asks the class.

A woman responds that physical violence is “when something happens to you and it’s not supposed to happen to you.” Ms. Estenovil shakes her head. “Physical violence is when they beat you up, or crush you down, hurt you – all these are physical violence,” she says.

Later, Ms. Estenovil notes that women’s tendency is accept violence “is not an easy matter to take from their minds. But with our seminars, we keep repeating that violence is no good, violence is no good. So, little by little, they are learning that they don’t have to be victims.”



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UNICEF's work with gender-based violence in emergencies

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