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Despite Rape and Abject Poverty, Haiti's Women Hold the Power for Change

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While the residents of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, continue to wrestle with the social and political aftershocks of the devastating earthquake of 2010, two groups in particular have found themselves to be particularly vulnerable: women and girls.

Many remain in makeshift camps, where they're being stalked and attacked in alarming numbers.

Health Frontline News sent a crew to Port-au-Prince to investigate. The report is disturbing, but the strength and courage of some of the women featured is quite remarkable.

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The fight for women's rights, against violence and rape, and for recognition has been a long struggle in Haiti. Until seven years ago, rape wasn't even punishable by law. It wasn't a crime until some very brave Haitian women won the battle in 2005.

In 1994, at the height of the brutal military regime that had overthrown a popular priest turned president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, both soldiers and civilian gangs used rape to terrorize the population. To speak out against abuse meant sure death. Not just the victim, but also the family, friends, acquaintances.

Against these odds, a few women clandestinely started organizing. There were five, and they all had been brutally abused and raped. I was able to meet with them in hiding. They agreed to be interviewed in shadow on tape, at a secret location, which was a small Catholic mission hidden in one of the capital's sinuous streets. No names, no organization behind them. I never forgot their courage. They asked me not to come back to their neighborhood for a while, to avoid attracting the slightest attention.

It's 2012. Haiti is still visibly shattered by an earthquake that devastated the capital Port-au-Prince in January 2010, causing over 200,000 deaths and leaving 1.5 million homeless. Over 1,000 makeshift tent cities mushroomed overnight as thousands of survivors fled to open spaces in the city. Women, adolescents, children, men, the elderly suddenly pitted together, with little other than the clothing they wore at the fatal hour when they emerged out of the ashes to find they were trapped in a hellish nightmare of cohabitation without protection. Hundreds of thousands of strangers among strangers. The social safety net of a neighborhood pulverized, gone.

In these circumstances, the worst of human behavior unfolds. Women, young adolescent girls became prey. Haiti being one of the poorest countries in this hemisphere and all the humanitarian aid that poured into the country could barely keep the 1.5 million alive on a daily scale with food and water. The rest -- adequate shelters and protection -- were in the plans but never implemented. The task was too colossal.

But Haitians are extremely resilient and self-sufficient. They managed over months, then a year. Now, more than two years since the devastating earthquake, half a million still live in the squalid camps. They are the most vulnerable because they are the poorest of 80% of Haiti's poor. In recent months, the situation has worsened, especially for women and young girls. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has found an alarming increase of rapes -- all ages, from children to elderly women.

Little was being heard about this in the international media, especially with the focus being halfway across the globe: the Arab spring. Global Health Frontline News went there to do an in-depth television report, and in the course of shooting the story, found that change can be achieved, even under the harshest of circumstances.

Since the dark days of 1994, the women of Haiti had grown into an outspoken, active network of watchdog organizations and rape victim support centers that, despite the added, unsurmountable odds of the earthquake, could galvanize resources to counter the onslaught of rape and assaults in the camps. They also secured a legal network to inform authorities and seek justice, that is, get the police's help to assist victims, register cases and hopefully follow through. And therein was the evidence of change and progress, after a long struggle. As many of the women we spoke with said, there is still a long way to go to change mentality, but we have the law on our side now and we don't have to remain silent.

Among them was Jocie Philistin, one of the pioneers of the 2005 law that made rape a crime in Haiti. She had been assaulted in 1997 by a high-ranking police officer. She was a university student on a committee to settle administrative matters with the military government. She kept the attack to herself while advocating for other victims. It wasn't until she ran into her aggressor years later that she realized the importance of speaking out.

"Every second of that terrible moment came back alive. I realized how important it was to speak out."

Philistin runs Kofaviv, a rape victim center and safehouse in Port-au-Prince. Their building was destroyed in the earthquake but a friendly owner lent them a house to work out of while they got back on their feet.

When we arrived at Kofaviv's temporary office, I realized it was the same place I had interviewed the women in secret back in 1994. The same hidden terrace where we had sat nervously, speaking in low voices. The same entrance we each came through separately. Once inside, I asked Jocie if this had been a mission. She said yes. Then I asked if she knew about a group of women from 1994 that had started clandestinely here. She said yes and then, smiling, said, three of them were there, downstairs. I walked down the steps to where the kitchen I remembered was and found Malya, the one who had been the leader in the 1994 days. We recognized each other immediately. The emotional reunion quickly spread to everyone who was at Kofaviv that day.

At the safehouse, about ten women with their children welcomed us. They spoke about the program, funded by UNHCR, which gave them a place to live safely, psychological and medical care, assistance for the children to go to school, food for the family, and finally, help to get back to normal life with support to fund a small vending business or find a job, or go back to university.

Most of the volunteers at Kofaviv are rape victims who dedicate their time to helping other victims speak out, to come out of the invisible jail. Kofaviv is one of the few programs that has a safehouse where victims can live for up to one year. Hoping for more funding, Philistin said they were planning to expand and add to the building to accommodate more victims.

"With the camp situation," she said, "it's gotten worse."

She added that the police had been helping them and so far, some 1,000 cases had been registered. But whether these brave women will see their day in court remains to be seen.

In the second half of this two-part blog, Ingrid Arnesen will take us inside the camps themselves for a glimpse into the dangerous lives of these vulnerable women.

Ingrid Arnesen is an award winning television news and print journalist with 25 years of experience covering Central and South America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Asia Minor for CBS News, ABC News and CNN. Ms. Arnesen has covered Haiti since 1986, before the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship through the present.