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Sexual Assaults in Haitian Camps Prompt Security Enhancements

Women and even children who survived Haiti's devastating earthquake say they now fear sexual assault in the hundreds of makeshift camps that have been set up for the homeless. U.N. officials in Haiti say they are increasing security measures to target sexual and gender-based violence.

A young mother who did not want to reveal her name says three men called for her to stop as she went to use the bathroom in one of the sprawling camps in Port-au-Prince.

She says she ignored them and kept on walking.

She says: "When they asked me to stop and I did not stop they walked towards me. They put their hands on me, they closed my mouth and all three of them raped me."

Alison Thompson, a volunteer relief worker who helps provide medical treatment to people displaced by the quake, says sexual assaults on women and children are rampant in the camps.

"When the lights go down, that is when the rapes increase, and it is happening daily across all the camps in Port-au-Prince and lots of them end up in my hospital - children as young as two years old," said Alison Thompson.

The second in command of the U.N. mission in Haiti, Anthony Banbury, tells VOA that U.N. Police and Haitian National Police are increasing their presence in some camps to 24 hours a day.

"The two police forces will go on joint patrols, foot patrols, in the camps with the focus on protection issues, especially sexual and gender-based violence issues," said Anthony Banbury.

U.N. police and Haitian National Police patrol jointly in teams of four. Two-thirds of the roughly 150 daily patrols are foot patrols.

The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known as MINUSTAH, says it has increased the number of U.N. police in earthquake-affected areas from a pre-earthquake 135 to 330, and it has more than doubled the number of patrol vehicles.

Again, the U.N.'s Banbury:

"It is not as if we are only working in the camps," he said. "The camps are a priority because of the particular protection risks in them, but certainly we are present throughout the city."

Relief organizations estimate that more than one million people lost their homes in the January quake. The U.N. says about 900 camps have sprouted up in and around the capital, Port-au-Prince. They vary in size from a few families gathered in parking lots or outside the rubble of their homes to more than 40,000 people living on the grounds of a country club in Petionville.

It is at the Petionville club settlement camp that the U.N. helped launch a pilot program staffed by female U.N. and Haitian police officers. They deal specifically with gender-based violence and child protection issues. This initiative is now being extended to a location in downtown Port-au-Prince.

The U.N. Population Fund says 125,000 women live in seven settlements that are viewed as the highest risk camps. And Banbury says there are 17 camps of more than 4,000 people that are considered top priorities.

The United Nations police adviser for peacekeeping operations, Anne-Marie Orler, traveled to Haiti earlier this month. She underscored that patrolling camps is a daunting task.

". . .having seen the areas, I understand the difficulties in doing so [patrolling] because there are tents just next to each other, and there is no electricity, so it is totally dark," said Anne-Marie Orler.

Heidi Lehmann is the Director of the International Rescue Committee's Gender Based Violence Technical Unit. She tells VOA that gender-based violence is not a new phenomena in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

"Violence against women and girls was a serious problem in Haiti pre-disaster, so post-earthquake, when we see the structures of law and order and other support systems break down, there are certainly risk factors to sexual violence and other types of violence against women and girls, for sure," said Heidi Lehmann.

While Haiti tends to be a community-oriented society, Lehmann said women she spoke to in the camps repeated the same sentiment.

"There are a lot of women and girls that we talk to that say, 'This is not the community that we came from," she said. "So many of these people that we are living around are strangers.'"

Banbury says the U.N. is establishing safety zones within camps to protect the most vulnerable inhabitants, particularly those who are frightened to be among strangers after nightfall.

"...or if they feel that they are in any way under threat, there will be place for them to go in the camps, anytime of day or night, where they will be safe," said Banbury.

He said other initiatives include adding lighting and working with camp committees and local organizations to enhance anti-violence campaigns.