On my first trip to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, last fall, I vividly recall the striking visual the mothers who had lost their children in the earthquake; and the others who clung to their children as they began to rebuild their lives. This glimpse made me think of when I became a mother; I was stepping into a place I didn’t know, but I was safe, had medical care and everything I would need to raise a child. The women I met in Haiti didn’t have this security. It was a startling moment to look into another mother’s eyes who didn’t have what I have – the most basic things to raise a child – safety and shelter.
After the earthquake, violence against women and children skyrocketed. I met Bernadette*, a 30 year old mother of three children, at a safe house for vulnerable women. Bernadette lives there with other women and girls who have been raped, forced into prostitution or engaged in survival sex in exchange for food to feed their children. Bernadette was raped three times in the camp. After telling me about each rape, she recalled, “When I was in the camp, I didn’t feel like I was living. I was always scared and I would stay in my tent out of fear that I would be attacked again.”
Bernadette is one of thousands who say they have experienced horrific violence in the lawlessness that followed the 2010 earthquake. She was removed from the camp with her children, ages 15, 12 and 9 through an initiative between UNHCR and KOFAVIV, a grassroots women’s organization run by and for survivors of sexual violence. The two organizations have founded one of the few safe house programs in Port-au-Prince.
After receiving medical and counseling support, Bernadette says that she finally feels safe. “When I first got here, I couldn’t sleep. Every time I heard a noise, I jumped. I was nervous. Now I sleep peacefully.” Smiling, she added “this safety brings me a bit of happiness in my heart that I did not feel before.”
She told her story without shedding a tear, full of strength and courage. She is clearly on the road to recovery. I couldn’t help but listen to her from the point of view of a mother. I was sad for her, proud of her, and most of all, hopeful for her. She is one mother in the safe arms of KOFAVIV. She has endured more than I can imagine.
KOFAVIV is now working with UNHCR on a livelihoods project where, through the support of partners, women like Bernadette receive micro-credit, financial literacy training, medical and psychosocial services. The goal is to help women become self-sufficient and successfully rebuild their lives.
While the number of people still living in tents has gone down from 1.5 million, following the quake, to approximately a half a million, it would be wrong to think that the others have found safety and long-term homes. Many displaced persons have been victims of forced eviction and have now been displaced two or three times. It is tempting to ignore this problem as the displaced are now less visible, but urgent needs remain. While there have been great strides in Haiti, I am worried that the rate of sexual violence in the camps, especially against young girls, is not declining.
UNHCR works in 120 countries around the globe providing life-saving assistance to refugees and other displaced people who have been forced from their homes. Along with our partners, we protect the most vulnerable, working to ensure their basic rights are met and they have access to necessities such as food, water, shelter, medical care and education. Our presence is small in Haiti, working on protecting women and providing documentation to those who lost vital records after the earthquake. But the humanitarian community is saving one life at a time. To join me in helping, please visit UNRefugees.org. A small donation can provide medicine, nutrition, blankets, tents and seeds to help a mother get back on her feet.
Lilli Tnaib is Public Information Associate, at the UNHCR Regional Office for the United States and the Caribbean. She based in Washington, DC, and is the mother of two young sons. @lillitnaib