Rape flourishes in Haiti rubble

Sexual violence against women has long been a scourge in Haiti, but rights activists had made real progress in recent...

Sexual violence against women has long been a scourge in Haiti, but rights activists had made real progress in recent years. Many of them died in the quake, and now women and girls are stalked by gang rapists.

Halya Lagunesse thought she knew despair. Nearly seven years ago, the soldiers who had killed her husband gang-raped the Haitian woman and her daughter Joann, who was 17 at the time.

But that pain pales in comparison to the torment of learning last March that her 5-year-old granddaughter had been raped.

The attacker gave the child about 50 cents to go and buy rice. On her way back, he intercepted her and dragged her into a cemetery.

"How did that happen? How did that happen?" Lagunesse, 50, cried, wringing her hands.

"This situation does something to their minds and makes people sick," she said. "Their hearts are bad."

Hers is a tragedy of rape compounded: Her granddaughter, now 6, was conceived in the gang rape of her daughter.

Rape wasn't even considered a serious criminal offense in Haiti until five years ago.

The women who pushed for the legislation making it so also built Haiti's first shelter for abused women. Next they had hoped to make fathers legally bound to acknowledge their children and pay some support.

Haitian women are the poorest and most disenfranchised in this poorest of nations in the hemisphere. And yet, through the work of a spirited coterie of feminist activists, real strides were being made.

Until Jan. 12, 2010.

Haiti's cataclysmic earthquake killed hundreds of thousands, left this capital in ruins and sent more than a million people into a life in crowded, squalid camps.

It also devastated a strong and surprisingly successful women's movement, which, a year later, struggles like the rest of the nation to recover, even as women are being subjected to horrific sexual violence.

So much has been lost.

Magalie Marcelin, the indefatigable activist with the gap-toothed smile who founded one of Haiti's most important women's advocacy organizations, Kay Fanm. Crushed to death as she mentored an aspiring feminist.

Myriam Merlet, broad-faced, cheerily abrasive and endlessly effective, whether in her position at the Women's Ministry she helped shape or lobbying for the rape law she helped enact. Died in her home under a ton of concrete.

And there were so many more, equally and less famous, midwives, nuns and professors, peasant leaders and government officials, all who worked for women. All gone.

"It was a very big loss," activist Danielle Saint-Lot said. "We cried together. We are mourning together."

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