PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Bernice Chamblain keeps a machete under her frayed mattress to ward off sexual predators and one leg wrapped around a bag of rice to stop nighttime thieves from stealing her daughters' food.
She has barely slept since Haiti's catastrophic earthquake Jan. 12 forced her and other homeless women and children into tent camps, where they are easy targets for gangs of men.
Women have always had it bad in Haiti. Now things are worse.
"I try not to sleep," says Chamblain, 22, who lost her father and now lives in a camp with her mother and aunts near the Port-au-Prince airport. "Some of the men who escaped from prison are coming around to the camps and causing problems for the women. We're all scared but what can we do? Many of our husbands, boyfriends and fathers are dead."
Reports of attacks are increasing: Women are robbed of coupons needed to obtain food at distribution points. Others relay rumors of rape and sexual intimidation at the outdoor camps, now home to more than a half million earthquake victims.
When darkness drops on most of the encampments, only flickering candles or the glow of cell phones provide light. Families huddle under plastic tarps because there aren't enough tents. With no showers and scant sanitation, men often lurk around places where women or young girls bathe out of buckets. Clusters of teenage girls sleep in the open streets while others wander the camps alone.
The government's communications minister, Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue, recently acknowledged the vulnerability of women and children but said the government was pressed to prioritize food, shelter and debris removal.
Some camps are providing special protection for women, with tents where they can receive trauma counseling or be alone to breast-feed and care for young children.
"My sister died in the earthquake, so now I have to take care of my three daughters and my sister's two," said Magda Cayo, 42. "I try to keep them close, but I see lots of hoodlums looking at them. We're all nervous. It's no good."
Because so many police stations were destroyed in the earthquake, some women may have no place to go to report assaults, according to Melanie Brooks of CARE, which is working to protect women while providing disaster relief.