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Women fear violence in Haitian camps

By Sara Sidner, CNN
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Camp life dangerous for women
  • Carine Exantus, 22, feels vulnerable to attacks by men in her makeshift shelter
  • Member of reconstruction panel says violence against women a problem before quake
  • The January 12 quake destroyed many of the services for women in Haiti
  • Solar flashlights being given out, security patrols have been increased
  • Haiti
  • Port-au-Prince
  • Earthquakes

Port-au-Prince, Haiti (CNN) -- Carine Exantus should be sitting in her college communications class. Instead, the 22-year-old is teaching herself how to avoid being attacked by the men who live in her new neighborhood -- a maze of makeshift shelters spaced so close together that it is hard to get between them but easy to get inside.

"I, like everybody else, live in a very precarious situation," said Exantus, who was forced to make her own shelter when her home was crushed in Haiti's January 12 earthquake.

"As a young woman," Exantus said, "I am afraid because I notice a lot of young men being aggressive toward women at night."

In her camp, there has already been trouble. The camp leaders told CNN that two cases of attempted rape have been reported in the past few days and one suspect has been arrested.

"When the guys don't have no money, their brain is not good," said camp leader Jean Joseph Rudler. "When they have no work or food and just sit around, it is bad. When a guy is drunk, he will do anything [to a woman]."

Women can be easily preyed upon when their four walls consist only of bed sheets or thin tents. But camp conditions, a government official said, isn't the underlying problem in Haiti when it comes to violence against women.

"I'm gonna be blunt," said Aby Brun, a member of Haiti's Commission for Reconstruction. "Promiscuity resulting in absolutely condemnable violence and abuse against women is something that has been going on in the slum areas and other levels of society for years. It's a cultural problem."

Exantus says she is often jarred awake by what she hears through the thin shelter wall. "There are some men who beat their girlfriends at night," she said.

During the day, women from the camp bathe topless in an outdoor fountain, their naked children trying to make a game of bath time by skidding around on the wet tiles in the blinding sun. Men sit nearby -- watching and sometimes make lewd comments.

Before the earthquake, Haiti was in the midst of implementing what the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) called an impressive five-year plan to curb violence against women and change the culture.

"It was a very ambitious achievement for Haiti to create a five-year plan," which began in 2006 and was to be complete by 2011, said Lina Abirafeh, the UNFPA gender-based violence coordinator in Haiti. "It looks at response to cases, data collection, monitoring and prevention. It really is a very robust plan."

Abirafeh says the quake destroyed many of the services for women, such as rape counseling centers and Haiti's Ministry for Women's Affairs. It also took the lives of three of Haiti's most revered female leaders.

Steps are being taken to safeguard women in the camps now. Solar flashlights are being handed out, proximity to bathrooms and lighting are being worked on, and security patrols increased.

Authorities point out that rape is by no means an epidemic in the camps. Citywide, police say, they have received 20 reports of rape and made 10 arrests. But it is common knowledge among experts that most of these types of incidents go unreported.

"Figures for sexual violence are underreported everywhere in the world. Every country has an issue with this, and the figures are only the tip of the iceberg. They tell us very little," said Abirafeh. "As far as I'm concerned, even one rape is one too many."

Whatever the numbers, young women like Carine Exantus say it's hard to sleep well at night.

"We have to be afraid," she said, "because we don't know when somebody may have bad intentions."