Haiti: Curbing Sexual Violence at a Time of Political Turmoil

25 November 2005
Author: UNFPA

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Every day, Lovely (11) and Laura (12) hang out at the Champs de Mars, the main plaza in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. They beg for money, carry things for a small tip, clean windscreens on cars. Sometimes they sell sex. On an average day, they make up to 160 gourdes, or a little less than $4. That money mostly goes to paying for clothes and transportation.

A UNFPA-supported GHESKIO centre in Port-au-Prince that provides free HIV testing and counselling as well as care for victims of sexual violence.  Photo: UNFPA

Lately, they have been showing up regularly at CAFA, a centre where street girls in the Haitian capital can come to eat breakfast, take a shower and learn things like making belts, arranging flowers, and skills needed to work in a beauty parlour. They also learn how to protect themselves from HIV and sexual violence, and pick up some of the basic knowledge they miss out on by missing school.

To boost stability in Haiti around the time of the upcoming elections, several United Nations agencies are carrying out ‘rapid impact’ projects ranging from election support to food aid. UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, is contributing to this effort by helping to prevent sexual violence and HIV.

“The idea is that by curbing sexual violence, which tends to accompany political and social unrest, we can contribute to a more stable society around the time of the elections and beyond,” says Hernando Clavijo, UNFPA Representative in Haiti.

“Impunity is by far the biggest problem we face when dealing with sexual violence,” said Adeline Chancy, Haiti’s Minister of Women’s Affairs. Her Ministry is now trying to address this problem through, among other means, a South-South initiative between Haiti and Brazil, which UNFPA is part of. This assistance is not only helping to train medical personnel and create public awareness about sexual violence, but also providing training for police officers and establishing institutions offering legal advice and health care for victims. Legislation against sexual violence is already in place; a better understanding of the problem, as well as prevention, care and enforcement of existing laws, is what’s needed.

Dr. Nicole Magloire, a consultant working with the Ministry, says that organized gangs use rape and sexual violence as a weapon during times of political and social unrest. “It creates chaos in the country and leaves men feeling helpless since they are unable to protect their wives and children,” she adds.

Another component of the UNFPA programme provides support to CAFA and several other institutions that offer medical, psychological and legal assistance to victims of sexual violence. Founded just over a decade ago, CAFA is the only centre for girls living and working on the streets of Port-au-Prince. It can accommodate daytime visits of up to 150 girls (about a third of them are prostitutes). In an emergency, a few girls can spend the night at the centre.

The girls also benefit from a national condom distribution programme supported by UNFPA. The programme provides $500,000 worth of condoms per year, aimed at the most vulnerable population, and covering about 40 per cent of the national consumption of condoms.

“Nobody wants to care for adolescents,” says CAFA’s founder Kettely Marseille. The institution therefore serves a unique need, unmet almost everywhere else. An estimated 600 girls live and work on the street in the Haitian capital. Many of them have their own children, and many others are regularly exposed to violence and unprotected sex with clients and police officers.

But sexual violence in Haiti does not only affect the marginalized population. A study shows that seven out of ten women in Haiti have been victims of violence, and that 37 per cent of those cases were sexual violence. During the political and social unrest that has been ongoing since 2003, the rate of sexual violence increased several-fold. UNFPA is therefore confronting the problem on multiple fronts.

The GHESKIO centres represent another such front. GHESKIO is a non-governmental organization that runs two health centres and a network of 25 satellite institutions around the country. With support from UNFPA and other international and bilateral organizations, it provides HIV testing, counselling for persons living with the infection, and care for victims of sexual violence. All services at the centres are provided free of charge. “Our patients cannot even afford to pay for transportation. Sometimes people walk 2-3 hours to get here. They simply would not be able to pay if we charged for our services,” says Dr. Marie Marcelle Deschamps, the organization’s Secretary-General.

Twenty-one per cent of those tested at GHESKIO turn out to be HIV positive, and 80 per cent of those who are found to be disease-free belong to high-risk groups. Last year, GHESKIO received 140,000 patient visits. Out of those, 270 were victims of rape, and 111 were children of HIV-positive mothers. Last July alone, the centres received 29 victims of sexual violence, of which one third were 19 or younger.

Haiti is near the bottom (153 of 177 countries) of the 2005 Human Development Index, which ranks countries’ level of development based on income, educational attainment and life expectancy. The overall HIV prevalence rate in Haiti, estimated at 3 to 4 per cent, is the highest in the Western Hemisphere. The Haitian population of 8 million is characterized by high rates of both fertility and mortality. Population growth is 2.3 per cent a year, while life expectancy is estimated at 52 years. Half of the Haitian population is aged 20 or younger. Women head more than half of the country’s households. Migration to the neighbouring Dominican Republic, as well as to Canada, France, the United States and the Caribbean, is significant; up to 1.8 million Haitians are believed to live outside their homeland.

Contact Information:

Trygve Olfarnes
Tel.: +52 55 5250-7977

Population : 11.4 mil
Fertility rate
Maternal Mortality Ratio
Contraceptives prevalence rate
Population aged 10-24

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