Baltimore City

Life for women, children in Haiti worsens, lecturer says

Fabienne Doucet is haunted by the stories of the women and children she has met who are still living in camps one year after an earthquake reduced the island nation of Haiti to rubble.

There's the former accounting student who apologizes for crying as she describes being gang-raped by four men. There's the young girl who was beaten so brutally she can no longer have children. And there's the mother who was so grateful to receive clothing for her babies that she insisted on washing Doucet's feet.

"These mothers and daughters call to me in my sleep," said Doucet, an assistant professor at New York University and co-founder of the activist organization HaitiCorps International. "They call to me when I'm awake. I hear their voices.

"Research has shown that there is a relationship between the way a society treats its women and its ability to thrive," she said. "But these black women and their children live in a society where they are not only undervalued, but an afterthought. They aren't considered fully human."

About two dozen people listened to Doucet deliver the Walters Art Museum's Martin Luther King Jr. Day lecture. The title of her speech spelled out her theme — "Women and Children Last: Stagnation, Bureaucracy and Indifference in Post-Disaster Haiti."

She drew a picture of camps that helped breed a cholera outbreak devastating the population, where the 5,000 residents live without running water, electric lights and with just 20 toilets.

She described a society that traditionally valued women so little that it wasn't until 2005 that a man accused of rape could be prosecuted criminally, a place so lawless that after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, 300 rapes were reported in a single month.

" Amnesty International asserts that these figures are low because rape is underreported," Doucet said. "And Amnesty International asserts that the problem is getting worse, not better."

As Doucet sees it, the lack of progress can be attributed to a weak government, intractable bureaucracies and charitable organizations more interested in courting wealthy donors than serving the suffering Haitians.

She urged her audience to restrict their donations to aid organizations that are making a bona fide contribution — suggesting Partners in Health, IMA World Health, the Lambi Fund of Haiti and Fonkoze USA — and call on U.S. elected officials to step up rebuilding efforts.

"The U.S. government has a key role to play in moving things forward," Doucet said. "Contact your congresspeople and provide them with the facts about what is happening. Let them know that the problems are getting worse."

There might not have been many people attending Doucet's lecture, but those who were there were passionate.

For instance, Ann Varghese of Baltimore is herself a survivor of the earthquake. A staff member of IMA World Health, Varghese was trapped for three days in Haiti when the hotel in which she was staying collapsed on top of her. She and three colleagues survived the ordeal. Two others did not.

"As soon as I came back, I jumped right back into work," she said. "This is my life. It is what I love."

After the lecture, she spoke with Frantz C. Francois, 36, of Baltimore, who wondered how to ensure that some of the relief items he has collected, such as food, clothing and crutches, make it into the right hands.

Francois, who brought his 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son to Doucet's lecture, said he emigrated from Haiti 20 years ago for political reasons. He called the earthquake a wake-up call.

"I've been back two or three times in the past year, and I'm going again this summer. Unless you see conditions yourself, you cannot understand or feel what it is like," he said. "I saw a father trading sexual favors from his 10-year-old for food stamps. When I came back, I said, 'Wow, I take life here for granted.' "