Sexual violence in Haiti is a public health problem: charity

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Rampant sexual violence in Haiti against women and children, including some toddlers, should be treated as a public health issue and more care made available for survivors, the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said.

Most of the 1,300 survivors of sexual violence who had been treated at one clinic run by MSF in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince since it opened in May 2015 are younger than 25, and more than half are children, according to a MSF report this month.

Four in every five people who sought free medical and psychological care at the MSF Pran Men’m clinic had been raped.

“We would like sexual violence to be recognized as a public health problem because there is not a lot of health services and care available for patients,” said Carl Frederic Casimir, deputy medical coordinator at the clinic.

The 24-hour clinic receives an average of 80 survivors of sexual violence a month, providing emergency contraception and antiretroviral drugs to prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.

Casimir said he has seen children as young as two years old treated for sexual assault at the clinic.

“This is the most shocking part of it, the minors. Most of the time with the children, it’s people (the attackers) they know,” Casimir told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Just under half of all child victims of sexual assault who came to the clinic were referred by the police, a sign authorities are playing an important role in helping girls and women get emergency care, MSF said.

“Their collaboration has been instrumental for ensuring timely medical and psychological care for young survivors,” the MSF report said.

“It could also suggest that some of these young women were confident enough to go to the police after sexual abuse.”

Rape survivors are often traumatized and having access to mental health care, including counseling, is crucial for them to recover and to avoid developing depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, Casimir said.

Haiti’s ministry for women has said addressing the country’s high levels of sexual violence and improving access to justice for victims is a priority.

Yet there are no official figures to show the scale of violence against women and girls in Haiti, in a country where rape has only been a crime since 2005.

Cases of sexual violence are under-reported due to stigma and shame, as well as fear of reprisal from attackers or the community, MSF’s report said.

Rights groups and the United Nations say sexual assaults and rape escalated after the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti.

Made homeless by the disaster, hundreds of thousands of Haitians were forced to live in overcrowded camps with little privacy, police presence and poor lighting, putting women and girls at risk of sexual violence.

A 2010 decision by the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights requested the Haitian government to take urgent measures to tackle rising levels of sexual violence and address impunity surrounding such cases.

Years on, about 45,000 Haitians made homeless by the quake still live in tents and make-shift shelters.