Long before a massive earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, high rates of sexual assault and other forms of violence against Haitian women and girls were a major issue. But the earthquake destroyed much of the social fabric, infrastructure, and relative stability that had previously provided some measure of protection.
Thrust into internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, having in some cases lost everything and everyone they had, many Haitian women and girls are now even more vulnerable to sexual violence.
One year after the earthquake, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) surveyed vulnerable women in an effort to identify links between lack of access to sufficient food (what we wonks call “food insecurity”) and transactional sex. The critical question: are displaced Haitian women trading sex for food in order to survive—and help their children survive, too?
The survey found that every single woman who participated in UNHCR’s focus groups had either been directly involved in or had witnessed transactional sex. Yet, none of them reported having engaged in transactional sex before the earthquake.
In other words, sexual exploitation and sexual coercion, forms of violence against women (VAW), have increased in response to new and dangerous circumstances, and they are adding to the burden already carried by so many Haitian women.
One woman interviewed by UNHCR put it simply:
“Many women exchange sexual favors for distribution cards, kits. Me, I do it, too – if not, how would I feed my children?”
Transactional sex is often called “exchange sex” because it is a practice of trading sex for something else, something that is needed, like food or school fees. It is also called “survival sex,” for fairly obvious reasons: it is a strategy to survive when there aren’t more reliable options. For many women, this coping mechanism is a very, very tough choice. In fact, transactional sex is often an expression of a lack of choice—which is one of the greatest vulnerabilities anyone can face.
So why did another form of violence against women emerge after disaster? Crisis situations make entrenched vulnerabilities worse, concentrating them into small geographic areas (IDP camps) and decreasing community- and government-led protections:
- Insufficient or inappropriate infrastructure, such as lack of lighting or shared latrines, puts women and girls in vulnerable positions.
- Lack of reporting mechanisms and overwhelmed government agencies create impunity for perpetrators.
- Inaccessible or insufficient safe houses or shelters, and rules against bringing children along, leave women little choice but to stay in abusive situations.
- Lack of access to education and income-generating opportunities make women dependent on the financial (and material) support of men.
All of these are human rights violations. They lead to other human rights violations and perpetuate power dynamics that devalue women and girls. Engaging in transactional sex gives men even more power because they have something women need. This puts women at heightened risk of other forms of violence. A cycle of poverty and violence ensues—if it didn’t exist already.
Hard statistics are difficult to come by, but we know that transactional sex is common among poor and marginalized women and girls all over the world. Women who are forced into this difficult choice to survive should never be punished for it. Instead, we should work to create conditions where this choice isn’t necessary, where there are other choices that can be made.
The Haitian government must finally prioritize the protection of women and girls in the camps and throughout Haiti. But that won’t be enough. It’s time to look beyond band-aid solutions and address the myriad vulnerabilities that have long existed in Haiti and facilitate violence against women.
It’s time to protect women’s rights.
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