There is no shortage of heartbreak felt for the people of Haiti. I cannot add any more expressions of grief than has already been added.
I will say, though, that this seems to be a great moment when churches can unite, across nuances of belief, to aid those in such desperation. It seems quite easy to unite when there is a common need for sustenance, while, at the same time, quite difficult to unite amidst what would be seen by some as angled interpretations of the story of God.
Today, reading and researching for a small group discussion guide centered around pain and loss, the following story found its way to me, and my heart broke again, at a situation that only seems to be getting worse.
Danger Grows for Haitian Girls Amidst Chaos
by Leslie Scrivener
Long before the earthquake struck, long before the schools where they could be safe crumbled, girls and young women were the most vulnerable in Haiti.
Now, in the aftermath of a disaster, there are greater fears for girls’ safety in a country where hundreds of thousands of children live as indentured slaves and the poorest girls in Port-au-Prince slums are targets of gang rape.
“My worry is we put a lot of effort into bringing relief, but we have to have some protective measures to benefit women and girls to avoid their being victimized and sexually assaulted. It was already difficult in ordinary times,” said Gerardo Ducos, Haiti researcher for Amnesty International.
A Haitian women’s organization documented 238 rapes in an 18-month period ending June 2008: 140 of those were girls aged 19 months to 18 years.
Prosecutions for rape, which became a criminal offence only in 2005, are pitifully few. The Guardian newspaper reported in a documentary film last year only 12 rape cases went to trial and that the police unit in charge of child protection has only 12 officers for 4 million children.
“I am not able to go to the police because I am really frightened,” a girl named Stephanie, who was raped during carnival in February 2007, told Amnesty International. “The attackers really pressured me not to report them although I don’t know them. This is all so humiliating. I had to stay quiet.”
A girl named Laure described to Amnesty International how her landlord forced her to have sex – sometimes at gunpoint – so her family would not be evicted. When Laure’s mother complained to the police, she was beaten up and Laure was raped again.
Girls and women in Haiti need support more than ever, says Yifat Susskind, policy and communications director for MADRE, a women’s rights organization based in New York. They become the caretakers in a crisis, responsible for the weakest, she says, adding it is often on the shoulders of women that a country is rebuilt.
“They need support commensurate to the burden they are carrying. Instead, we see women and girls are targeted in all sorts of way, especially gender violence.”
Noting the collapse of the central prison, she said social norms that keep people’s behaviour in check may disappear in a national disaster. “The fabric of society is destroyed and the controls that people internalize against rape, incest, reacting to the slightest provocation by beating the hell out of someone, go, too. One of the ugly things of human nature is that a pecking order emerges in any crisis …”
There are also more tangible losses for women and girls, she added.
“Her grandmother, the one person (a girl) could go to for protection or solace – she doesn’t know if she is dead or alive. Her school, the one safe place she could go every day is destroyed. … ”
While enrolment of girls in school appears at first to be higher than that of boys, many girls drop out after three months, Ducos, a Canadian, said from England. They enrol the next year, then drop out again, often to look after younger siblings or tend to domestic chores.
UNICEF estimated 100,000 Haitian girls were in domestic service in 2007, while a CARE report says the number could be double that.
Impoverished families may turn their children over to other families, where there is at least hope of food and shelter. Few receive an education. These children are known as restavek, from the French rester avec, or “to stay with.” The pejorative term implies their families abandoned them.
Amnesty also reports a trend toward brokers who search for children, especially those in large families, “enticing them to give up their children by making empty promises of a brighter future for them.”
Susskind said, “If you feel your child is at risk of starvation, you give them to a house where they have a chance. … things you never think a mother would do are her single best option.”
And there is another concern. “What will happen with the orphans?” asked Ducos. “We know there was trafficking of children out of Haiti, fake orphanages operating illegally and trafficking to the Dominican Republic where orphans beg in the streets. Orphans in the wake of the earthquake could be another human catastrophe.”
Three girls aged 18 and 19, who lived at an all-girls orphanage founded by retired Windsor detective Frank Chauvin, have died in the earthquake. A staff member is reported dead and two are missing.
Le Foyer des Filles de Dieu, home to 70 girls aged 3 to 19, appears to have suffered only cracks, Chauvin said. He and a Haitian educator started the orphanage in 1987 after he visited a bleak detention centre for abandoned children.
“When I opened the door, I saw 125 little girls sitting there in the hot sun. There was nothing in there,” he recalled. “My idea was to get these girls into an organization, teach them how to read and write so if they left they could look after themselves.
“Before, they had no chance to go to school,” said Chauvin, 76, who has 10 children and is a member of the Order of Canada. “They are children for a few years and then they have to do the work of a woman and carry on.”