Maria Suárez Toro reports from Haiti: Violence against women and social assessment in the camps in Haiti

by María Suárez Toro, FIRE

While I lay in a tent in FIRE´s camp in Haiti, I remember one of the first popular songs that changed social consciousness regarding violence against women, at a time when the subject was a well-known secret and there was no political, social and cultural acknowledgment of violence against women as a violation of the human rights of women.

"My name is Luka" came out on the hit parade in the eighties. In a soft voice, almost whispering, Luka tells us that she is the neighbor who lives upstairs and if you hear her moaning and aching, you may not know exactly what is happening, but you can imagine.

She changed many of us because she gave a voice to what was happening behind closed doors and in the privacy of homes. A voice that told the story with such deep-felt meaning that everyone one had to listen.

This is my third night in the camp in Port-au-Prince where we are developing the Feminist Solidarity Camp for communications. Solidarity with the Haitian people in the aftermath of the 12th of January earthquake, mourning with them in honor of the more than 300,000 people who lost their lives, and coverage of what was happening with women in Haiti has brought us here.

It is well-known that at this moment in Haiti’s history, violence against women is on a similar scale to the rest of the world: one in every three women. It is well-known too, that in times of natural disasters, there tends to be an increase in violence against women and girls.

Nobody knows for certain the extent to which this is happening in Haiti today because there are many stories but no official statements with names and places and no official data collected. Some reports tell of a woman who was rescued from the wreckage by a man who then raped her. Others tell about a teenager who was hiding in some rubble because she was alone and that some men came to loot the place and when they found her, they raped and killed her. An account tells of how a woman carrying her bag of rice distributed by humanitarian agencies was stopped by two men on a street - not only did they steal her bag but they also killed her.

Stories are being told everywhere. These are the cries in the silence. However in our neighboring camp there are other cries of silence. I hear them once again tonight. Then their voices fade into the murmur of muffled responses that ask for quiet.

It is February, one o’clock in the morning and I'm sleeping in our tent at the edge of a large settlement of more than 1,000 people who, on 12th January, lost their homes in the city due to the earthquake.

A female voice moans in the dark of night. Immediately the murmur of cries of other people join in rises and spreads like the ripples of the tremors. It continues and expands until it disappears while hush returns.

As with "Luka", I do not know if the murmur of others’ needs quiets her so that all can sleep, or if it strengthens her so that she can live and sleep in peace.

The cries in the silence are calls of distress. With the dawn of a new day, women’s pains are temporarily abated. But as night falls again, it brings a new lament in a different part of the settlement. Once again some woman's protest starts, the murmur erupts once more, then is followed by silence and another day dawns with my same concern every day: how will we know what is going on with regards to violence in the camps and how will we go about doing something about it?

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