PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Bernice Chamblain keeps a machete under her frayed mattress to ward off sexual predators and one leg wrapped around a bag of rice to stop nighttime thieves from stealing her daughters’ food.
She’s barely slept since Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake Jan. 12 forced her and other homeless women and children into tent camps, where they are easy targets for gangs of men.
Women have always had it bad in Haiti. Now things are worse.
“I try not to sleep,” says Chamblain, 22, who lost her father and now lives in a squalid camp with her mother and aunts near the Port-au-Prince airport. “Some of the men who escaped from prison are coming around to the camps and causing problems for the women. We’re all scared but what can we do? Many of our husbands, boyfriends and fathers are dead.”
Reports of attacks are increasing: Women are robbed of coupons needed to obtain food at distribution points. Others relay rumors of rape and sexual intimidation at the outdoor camps, now home to more than a half million earthquake victims.
A curtain of darkness drops on most of the encampments at night. Only flickering candles or the glow of cell phones provide light. Families huddle under plastic tarps because there aren’t enough tents. With no showers and scant sanitation, men often lurk around places where women or young girls bathe out of buckets. Clusters of teenage girls sleep in the open streets while others wander the camps alone.
The government’s communications minister, Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue, recently acknowledged the vulnerability of women and children but said the government was pressed to prioritize food, shelter and debris removal.
Aid groups offer special shelters for women and provide women-only food distribution points to deter men from bullying them. But challenges are rife more than three weeks after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed an estimated 200,000 people and left as many as 3 million in need of food, shelter and medicine.
Women who lined up for food before dawn Saturday said they were attacked by knife-wielding men who stole their coupons.
“At 4 a.m. we were coming and a group of men came out from an alley,” said Paquet Marly, 28, who was waiting for rice to feed her two daughters, mother and extended family. “They came out with knives and said, ‘Give me your coupons.’ We were obliged to give them. Now we have nothing — no coupons and no food.”
Aid organizations set up women-only distribution schemes because they trust the primary caregivers to get that food to extended family, not resell it.
“We’ve targeted the women because we think it’s the best way to get to families,” said Jacques Montouroy, a Catholic Relief Services worker helping out Saturday. “In other distributions when we’ve opened it up to men, we found that only half of the men would do what they were supposed to with the food.”
Soldiers from the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, guard many of the streets around the distribution points, but they can’t be everywhere all the time.
Aid workers say they’ve been staging elaborate decoy operations to draw men to one area while food coupons are given to women in another. Each of the 16 daily distributions throughout Port-au-Prince presents its own security challenges, Montouroy said.
“The coupon distribution has been hellish,” he said, explaining how crowds of men swarm around the women.
Even if the women successfully make it back to the camps with their 55-pound (25-kilogram) bags of rice, that doesn’t mean their worries are over. Some camps are even providing special protection for women, with tents where they can receive trauma counseling or be alone to breast-feed and care for young children.
“My sister died in the earthquake, so now I have to take care of my three daughters and my sister’s two,” said Magda Cayo, 42. “I try to keep them close but I see lots of hoodlums looking at them. We’re all nervous. It’s no good.”
Women have long been second-class citizens in Haiti.
According to the United Nations, the Haitian Constitution does not specifically prohibit sexual discrimination. Under Haitian law, the minimum legal age for marriage is 15 years for women and 18 years for men, and early marriage is common. A 2004 U.N. report estimated 19 percent of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 were married, divorced or widowed.
Rape was only made a criminal offense in Haiti in 2005.
In the months after a violent uprising ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, thousands of women were raped or sexually abused, the British medical journal Lancet reported. The coup set off a bloody wave of clashes among Haiti’s national police, pro- and anti-Aristide gangs, U.N. peacekeepers and rebels.
Because so many police stations and government offices were destroyed in the earthquake, some women may have no place to go to report assaults, according to Melanie Brooks of CARE, which is working to protect women while providing disaster relief.
She said women recovering from quake-related injuries are even more vulnerable because many are not mobile. An additional threat is HIV; Haiti has the highest infection rate in the Caribbean.
“The women whom we’ve talked to tell stories of rape, assaults or men following them around when they’re bathing,” Brooks said. “These stories are becoming the new bogeymen now. Everyone is looking over their shoulder.”
Before the earthquake, the government set up a panel to look at ways of empowering Haitian women. But the Women’s Ministry was among the government buildings destroyed.
Three Haitian women working on important judiciary reforms to protect women against sexual violence — Myriam Merlet, Anne Marie Coriolan and Magalie Marcelin — died in the earthquake. Many view their deaths as setbacks for all Haitian women.
As women lined up for food at the National Palace on Saturday, U.S. soldiers kept the men behind a cordon.
“It’s discrimination!” said Thomas Louis, 40. “We’ve all lost mothers, sisters, wives. Without women we can’t get coupons. They’re treating men like we are animals.”
(This version CORRECTS that several camps are providing shelter for women, rather than one.)