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Sexual Exploitation in Post-Earthquake Haiti

Posted on: Thursday, January 12, 2012

Keywords: Haiti, Latin American and Caribbean, Combating Violence Against Women, Human Rights Avocacy

Two years ago on January 12, an earthquake devastated Haiti. The drastic increase in sexual violence in displacement camps has been well-documented since the disaster. But another face of the epidemic has emerged as a pressing issue: the sexual exploitation of displaced women and girls.

Lack of economic opportunity and the loss of community and family structures have driven young women and girls into survival sex—the exchange of sex for money, water, housing, jobs, education or even a single meal.

A new report authored by MADRE, the Commission of Women Victims for Victims (KOFAVIV), the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic at the City University of New York School of Law, the Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law and the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at UC Hastings College of the Law, reveals the epidemic of sexual exploitation of displaced Haitian women and girls.

Read the summary below for information on sexual exploitation in post-earthquake Haiti, or read the full report by clicking here.

A Backgrounder

  • On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti. The earthquake caused widespread damage, killing hundreds of thousands of people and displacing millions.
  • In the aftermath of the quake, displacement camps sprung up in and around the capital of Port-au-Prince. Overcrowded, with little security, flimsy shelters and almost no privacy, incidents of rape and sexual violence increased exponentially. 
  • Left with no way to earn an income and a stark lack of alternatives, increasing numbers of women and girls in the camps have turned to survival sex and been made vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
  • A rise in sexual violence and sexual exploitation in abusive conditions after disaster is common. We saw it in Somalia after the famine, in Sri Lanka after the tsunami and in Pakistan after the floods.
The Report: Analyzing Sexual Exploitation among Women and Girls in Haiti
  • The Report is based on interviews with displaced women between the ages of 18 and 32 who have either engaged in sexual exchange themselves or who know someone who has.
  • Sexual exploitation is defined as the abuse of differential power for sexual purposes, including profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another, thus denying the victim’s human right to dignity, equality, autonomy, and physical and mental well-being. “Survival sex” is defined here as the exchange of sex in circumstances where those exchanging sex for survival lack other options. It has been treated as distinct from rape given the perception of choice in engaging in transactional sex. But for many displaced Haitians engaging in survival sex, the decision is not a result of free choice. 
  • Interviewees and organizations alike recognize that economic disempowerment is the principal factor making women and girls vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Few jobs are available, and those that are available rarely generate enough income for women to provide for themselves and their families.
Barriers to Addressing Sexual Exploitation
  • Despite widespread recognition of sexual exploitation, multiple barriers impede efforts to end this epidemic:
    • Stereotypes: Many believe that women and girls who engage in transactional sex are lazy, that other jobs and economic opportunities exist or that displaced persons engaging in transactional sex do so as the result of free will.
    • Lack of resources: The Haitian government’s inability to address sexual exploitation is due in part to a lack of resources. Billions of dollars were pledged in the aftermath of the earthquake, but less than half has been delivered. Of that money, only a small percentage was allocated to the Haitian government or Haitian NGOs.
    • Justice system: Many women and girls do not choose to report abuse or press charges. This is due to fears of discrimination or abuse at the hands of police, a perception that the justice system is ineffective and concern that they might face punishment themselves for having engaged in survival sex. Although not required by law, victims of sexual violence are also expected to have medical certificates as proof of the crime. Inherent in this expectation is the belief that a woman’s testimony is untrustworthy and that physical force must be shown to prove lack of consent.
  • There is much to be done to combat an epidemic of sexual exploitation. The approach of organizations, governments and agencies alike must be multi-faceted and address immediate and long-term needs as well as hold perpetrators accountable. The report recommends:
    • Ensuring that displaced women and girls are provided with the basic necessities of life including adequate food, medical care and shelter;
    • Equipping displacement camps with lighting and security to safeguard women and girls against sexual violence;
    • Training medical staff, police, outreach workers, teachers, judges and prosecutors on how to identify and respond to women and girls vulnerable to sexual exploitation;
    • Guaranteeing women’s full participation and leadership in all phases of the reconstruction of Haiti;
    • And complying with international standards and laws on the protection of human rights.

MADRE works with KOFAVIV, a grassroots women’s rights organization in Haiti, to combat the epidemic of sexual violence and exploitation among displaced women and girls. To find out more about our work with KOFAVIV, click here. To learn about how you can help end sexual exploitation in Haiti, click here.

To read the report in full, click here.
To read the press release accompanying the report, click here.
To read some of the stories compiled during the interviews with displaced women and girls, click here.
To listen to an audio recording of a phone briefing held about the report, click here.

Additional Resources:

“Rape, homelessness, cholera hound Haiti 2 yrs after quake,” Reuters AlertNet (January 5, 2012)

“Haiti: Seven Places Where Earthquake Money Did and Did Not Go,” Common Dreams (January 3, 2012)

“Child trafficking surges in Haiti,” Al Jazeera (December 25, 2011)

“Haiti: Giving girls a way out,” The Guardian (November 20, 2011)

“A search for sanctuary,”
The Guardian (November 20, 2011)

“U.N. Troops Accused of Exploiting Local Women,” IPS News (September 7, 2011)

“Achieving Justice for Victims of Rape and Advancing Women’s Rights: A Comparative Study of Legal Reform,” TrustLaw (September 2011)

“In Haiti, sexual violence, healthcare neglect plague women, girls,” The Los Angeles Times (August 30, 2011)

“Women Turn Spotlight on Haiti’s Silent Rape Epidemic,” IPS News (March 29, 2011)

“Sexual Violence in Haiti’s IDP Camps,” Center for Human Rights and Global
(March 2011)


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