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Meet the only woman running a tent city in Haiti for survivors of earthquake. Can she stop the sexual violence?

Haiti tent city (Edyta Materka)

PORT-AU-PRINCE - Magaline Richard is sporting an orange dress and a pair of cheap, colorful earrings. Her look is less proud than hardened. An icy stare borders on expressionless, forged by the hard luck that life has brought -- and from her current job.

Magaline Richard's work does not allow admitting weakness, and offers no space for mistakes or concessions. She is the head of a tent city, the on-the-ground authority governing the interaction between the 3,000 people (half of whom are children) forced by last January's earthquake to live together in this makeshift camp. With 650 families in tight quarters, her job is largely about preventing the situation from degenerating into violence and anarchy.

We arrive aboard a pick-up truck under a bright sun, with children playing in the dust and a morning mass underway inside a white tent with the UNICEF insignia. Next to Magaline stands a tall, stern-eyed man dressed in dark pants and blue t-shirt who is the official head of security, her right-hand man.

Since the Jan. 12 quake that killed 230,000 and left some one million homeless, thousands of these impromptu "cities' have spawned across Haiti, from Port-au-Prince down to the southern countryside. Each one has a boss, a sort of "mayor."

Magaline, a widow and mother of a boy, is the only woman in Haiti to run a major refugee camp. Why Marasà 14 K1, the name of this particular camp, chose her as its head no one seems able to explain. But it is a choice that rose up from the people who live there, certainly not imposed from above by a central public authority, which has basically become invisible.

At Marasà K1, on the whole, everything seems to run well enough, with an acceptable level of order and decorum and cleanliness – better than average among the tent cities that we visited.

Magaline denies the widespread reports of sexual abuse and violence, one of the scourges that afflict the tent cities and shantytowns in post-quake Haiti. Her insistence that there is no such violence in her camp raises more than a bit of suspicion, but her proud denials have the air of: Here, I protect the women.

Matter-of-factly, instead, she confirms that there were 25 cases of cholera, and gestures toward the same single stream nearby where everybody goes to wash. The risk of further spread of cholera is a top preoccupation.

One clear wish Magaline has is that all the camp's children attend the local school, called "Angels of Light," a refuge from the harsh realities of the camp, which she rattles off with her perpetually serious expression: lack of medicine, disease, food shortages.

When the volunteers arrive with trucks of rice and other supplies, Magaline manages the distribution. Outside her tent, at the entrance to Marasà 14 K1, Magaline convenes a meeting with the heads of each household and distributes the family rations coupons. This, above all, is how order is kept.

In the evening, the perimeter of the camp is patrolled by security guards meant to ensure that no one enters and threaten the women and girls, for after sunset gunmen are still known to prowl nearby. Looking at the numbers, it is impossible to deny the gravity of the problem of sexual abuse. It continues to get worse according to a report released recently by Amnesty International, which estimated that in the first 150 days after the earthquake there were over 250 cases of rape reported. A year later, the office of a local support group for women says that nearly every day someone comes in to report a rape.

"These women already have the pain of having lost their loved ones, their homes and belongings to the earthquake," said Amnesty International's Gerardo Ducos. "On top of that, they have the further trauma of living under the constant threat of sexual violence."

Read the original article in Italian

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