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How one program curtails the sex abuse that skyrocketed after Haiti earthquake

Melanie Megevand brings women and their husbands together to talk openly about sexual abuse, which helps to relieve tensions at home.

By Ezra FieserCorrespondent / January 12, 2011

Women gather at the women-only space in camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Nov. 17, 2010. Gender-based violence, or domestic abuse, is a big problem in camp so these spaces give women a safe place to learn basic skills that could help them get a job – like seamstress, hairdressers and manicurists.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File


Port-au-Prince, Haiti

The women came first, gathering under a roofed plywood shack to learn basic skills that could help them get a job – to sew or speak English.

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The meetings soon turned into a sort of group therapy, where they discussed the pressures of living in a squalid, crowded camp with 26,000 earthquake survivors.

But it wasn’t until their husbands joined them that the daily gatherings gave a few dozen Haitians a way to talk openly about sexual abuse – a problem that experts say has grown since last year’s earthquake.

IN PICTURES: Life in a tent city

“At first it was like 15 or 20 guys who came down to complain that their wives were spending too much time here,” says Franklin Fontaine, who has led the group meetings. “But then we all got together and sat down. … It was unbelievable, for many of them it was the first time they had ever said the words ‘domestic violence.’”

Amid a grim year of sexual violence that has plagued camps across Haiti, projects like this one, grounded in community involvement, have proved successful.

Even before a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated this impoverished Caribbean country one year ago today, Haiti struggled to protect women from rape and domestic violence. In the nearly two years after the 2004 coup that toppled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, an average of 1,600 rapes were being committed every month, a study published in The Lancet medical journal found.

It has only worsened since the quake sent more than 1.5 million into unplanned camps, where an estimated 810,000 people still remain. With no running water and, in some cases, no lighting at night, women have been forced to bathe in public and make their way to latrines and showers in the dark. Even in their tents and huts, fashioned from flimsy sticks and tarps, they’ve been attacked.

'Nobody is being punished'

A report released Jan. 6 by Amnesty International found that sexual violence had grown dramatically since the earthquake struck and authorities were failing to stop it. The problem has persisted despite the presence of more than 12,000 police and military troops sent by the United Nations to Haiti to stabilize the country and years of warnings to the Haitian government.

“There’s no justice, nobody is being punished,” Gerardo Ducos, the report’s author, says.

Malya Villard-Apollon, a rape survivor and leader of KOFAVIV, a grassroots organization that works with victims, agreed. Working in 32 camps, her organization registered 859 cases since the earthquake. Only five cases have made it to trial and only one person – a police officer – has been jailed.


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