02/08/2012 08:18 EST | Updated 02/08/2012 10:24 EST

First the Quake -- Now Haitian Women Fear Rape

Two weeks ago in Port-au-Prince, over 50 women and girls crowded into a tent designed to sleep four to six. Despite the sweltering heat, they crammed inside to discuss the results of a study conducted by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice in their camp and several others for people displaced by the January 2010 earthquake.

The study is the basis of a new report, Yon Je Louvri: Reducing Vulnerability to Sexual Violence in Haiti's IDP Camps, which reveals that women and girls in tent camps are suffering alarming levels of sexual violence, and that the likelihood of being victimized increases with hunger, lack of water, and insufficient access to sanitation.

The 18-month study involved a survey of 365 households in four camps, 18 focus groups, and dozens of interviews. We found that 14 per cent of camp households surveyed had been directly affected by sexual violence. More than one in every 10 families reported that someone in the household had been raped or sexually assaulted since the earthquake. Seven out of 10 families said they live in fear of attack, and the majority of camp residents demanded improved patrols by the Haitian police and increased support for community-based security mechanisms.

The women we spoke to last week were not surprised by our findings; they live these daily struggles. They were, however, visibly angry -- and rightfully so. Our survey data confirmed what has long been reflected in humanitarian guidelines, but tragically seems to have been forgotten in post-earthquake Haiti: that people who do not have adequate food, water, and sanitation are at greater risk of rape and other forms of sexual assault.

The typical victim in the camps is like many of the women and girls who came to hear our results: she is young; she lives in a small household with three or fewer people who have gone hungry for a day or more in the previous week; she has limited access to water and sanitation; and she has little opportunity to participate in decisions regarding camp governance and resource management.

Perhaps because such opportunities to be heard are rare, the women we met seemed eager to voice their frustration. More than two years after the massive earthquake that devastated Haiti's capital, and despite the influx of aid, these women, girls, and at least half a million more people remain stuck in camps. Their makeshift shelters provide little protection against the elements, let alone against intrusion by attackers. Living conditions in the camps are dire and worsening for many. And the way out is anything but clear.

As the women reminded us, camp residents demand alternative, long-term housing. But forcing people out of the camps by depriving them of the basic resources they need to survive is an unacceptable relocation strategy and a clear violation of international human rights law. Yet this constructive eviction is precisely what appears to be happening two years on. Donor fatigue has beset the international community and the mainstream media has largely lost interest. In this vacuum, the government of Haiti seems intent on demonstrating progress by removing the eyesores of the camps from public spaces. Illegal clearings of tents continue, but even in those camps that have been spared so far, withdrawal of essential services and neglect of residents' basic needs are making daily survival a struggle.

Today, hunger is widespread in the camps, latrines are no longer being serviced, and families complain about their inability to pay for water since the government ordered an end to free water distribution in late 2011.

If the government of Haiti and the international community are serious about relocating people in stable communities, the women suggested, they should place services and economic opportunities in the neighborhoods where people are expected to resettle. And if they are committed to ending sexual violence, then, as our study shows, ensuring access to food, water, and sanitation must be an essential component of any protection strategy -- for those inside the camps and in resettled communities. People in camps want to leave, but they need real alternatives. Until those alternatives exist, they must not be denied their fundamental rights and exposed to greater risk of sexual violence.

As the meeting drew to a close, the women insisted on escorting us out of the camp. If we had come there safely, they told us, it was because they were keeping watch. The police don't help people in the camps, the women scoffed. UN troops remain on the periphery, reluctant to intervene. The state is absent and the NGOs are gone: "We are all who are left."

These residents must not be consigned to live in a state of constant insecurity. The government of Haiti and the international community must take immediate steps to ensure safer living conditions for the hundreds of thousands in the camps who continue to "sleep with one eye open."