By Amy Lieberman
Thursday, April 29, 2010
A female U.N. police force from Bangladesh is bringing hope of better protection to Haitian women in makeshift camps for those displaced by the earthquake. Women's activists in one camp say it's not enough. They need help urgently.
Amid the deteriorating situation, Bangladesh's mostly female U.N. policing unit--130 women supported by 30 men--is raising cautious hope.
Edmond Mulet, head of the Haiti U.N. mission, said he hopes the Bangladeshi troops will prove as helpful as the U.N.'s first all-female unit, which came from India, was in Liberia, where rape was used as a systematic weapon of war during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Bangladeshi troops will be operating in a post-disaster zone, not a post-conflict zone as was the case in Liberia. But officials say that in addition to sex assault in the camps, Haiti has a rooted history of sexual assault that merits increasing women's protection.
The three-year-old all-female units in Liberia are widely credited with encouraging women to report on sex assault.
"It's a whole world of difference for women who have been victimized to see women police, and we see the reporting of cases of gender-based sexual crimes increase when they are there," said Lea Angela Biason, a gender affairs associate for the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping, in a recent interview.
The Liberian all-female deployment has also been credited with providing women with a positive role model. An example of that is the slight but significant increase in women's participation in Liberia's national security forces. In 2008 women constituted almost 13 percent of Liberia's national police force and by the following year, 2009, the figure was up to 15 percent, according to the U.N. mission in Liberia.
Female peacekeepers from Austria, Rwanda and Nigeria, as well as an additional female unit from India, are slated to be deployed to various countries in the coming months, Biason said.
Women currently make up 6.5 percent of U.N. peacekeeping forces, but a recruitment effort aims for 20 percent by 2014, Biason said.
At Delva's Champ-de-Mars camp, KOFAVIV organizers--all victims of sexual assault themselves--found in a recent informal survey an average of 15.3 incidents of rape in the two months, per camp, following the earthquake.
Bell, the American activist, noted that almost none of the organizers are literate and that their work cannot replace formal documentation, which does not exist.
The earthquake destroyed the formal data system for tracking and reporting cases of gender-based sexual violence that the United Nations Development Fund for Women, or UNIFEM, was developing.
Bell said it's hard to know how these numbers would compare to an intensive assessment, but the testimony of girls and women she recently met reveal an overwhelming atmosphere of fear in the camps.
"I spoke with a woman who sleeps with a machete under her blanket, in case men come after her 18-year-old daughter who sleeps next to her," Bell said. "I heard from a woman in the general hospital of a 1-½-year-old baby whose mother's boyfriend raped her."
Delva says her group is continuing its difficult work in the camps, as she also tries to find a way for her family and herself out of the tent city.
Appolon, her co-coordinator, said they have a responsibility to defend girls and women who are living in the camps. "The police are crazy and laugh when we tell them these things, but we cannot stop doing what we are doing. There is no other way," she said.
Amy Lieberman is a journalist based out of the U.N. Secretariat, where she writes primarily for a Brazilian newswire.
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