From Spain to the U.S. to Haiti, sexual abuses plague women's soccer
The sexual harassment scandal involving Spain’s national soccer federation right now is a reminder that harassment and abuse are a problem for women’s soccer around the world — including the U.S. and in the Latin American and Caribbean countries we follow closely here in South Florida.
In late July, most if not all of the attention being paid to the Haitian women’s national soccer team was focused in the South Pacific — in Australia and New Zealand, where the Haitian women were making their first-ever appearance in the World Cup.
Though TV commentators were impressed by Haiti’s play against powerhouse teams like England, Les Grenadiers, as the Haitian side is known, were knocked out of the tournament in the first round. Still, the Haitian women did score a victory of sorts at that time.
Not on the field, but back home in a courtroom in Haiti.
As Les Grenadiers were traveling to the World Cup, human rights lawyers were convincing a Haitian appeals judge to order Yves Jean-Bart — the former longtime president of Haiti's national soccer federation (FHF) — to appear in court in Port-au-Prince in October. He will once again have to answer to accusations that in the past decade or more, he sexually harassed and raped several Haitian women soccer players, often at their training facility in Croix-des-Bouquets outside the capital.
“This is very important not only for Haiti, but for all other countries,” says Rosy Auguste Ducena, a lawyer with the nonprofit National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH) in Port-au-Prince, one of five Haitian rights groups that urged the appeals court to re-open the case against Jean-Bart.
Jean-Bart denies any wrongdoing. In fact, earlier this year, he thought he had escaped the abuse charges once and for all.
The accusations were first brought against him in 2020, but a Haitian judge — without even hearing from the women's lawyers, they say — dismissed the case. Ducena insists Jean-Bart was protected because soccer is Haiti's most popular sport.
“He was at the head of the federation, so he was very powerful, very famous," Ducena told WLRN from Port-au-Prince.
"He had a lot of money. But Haitian society needs to know what happened.”
Soccer’s international governing body, known as FIFA, did take seriously the charges — which Ducena says include claims by more than one player that he forced them to have abortions after getting them pregnant — and banned Jean-Bart for life. But last February a FIFA arbitration court overturned the ban.
“Now the [appeals] judge has more information than before,” says Haitian attorney Patrice Florvilus, who heads the Lawyers Collective for Strategic Human Rights Litigation (CALSDH) in Port-au-Prince — and is part of the legal team that, after the FIFA setback, presented additional evidence and testimony against Jean-Bart to the appelllate court.
"So the judge decided to keep open the case," says Florvilus.
As a result, Jean-Bart’s legal troubles are not over after all.
This is an opportunity for Haitian soccer women and girls to have confidence back — and it's important not just for Haiti but all other countries.Rosy Auguste Ducena
Florvilus says that because soccer — or football, as it’s known outside the U.S. — is so high-profile in Haiti, the Jean-Bart case is a chance to ramp up the fight against all sexual abuse in the country, which rights groups say too often goes unpunished.
“We need to have example about justice in Haiti," says Florvilus. If a Haitian court does prosecute and convict Jean-Bart, he argues, "It will be a big message from the system against impunity and corruption.”
After the appeals judge's decision in July, Jean-Bart, who is also a doctor, said through a spokesman that the world will "be reminded of [my] complete innocence."
None of the Haitian women soccer players who’ve accused Jean-Bart are currently speaking out publicly — largely because, when they first came forward three years ago, they say they received death threats. (Jean-Bart denies having any part in that.)
But women’s soccer advocates say Haiti’s controversy is just a reflection of a generalized culture of misbehavior, sexual and otherwise, everywhere in the sport.
“There’s just always been in the soccer world a lack of professionalism," says Kassie Gray, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Female Footballersin San Jose, Calif.
"You go to any other job — like in the corporate world, for example — what’s going on in Spain, today that would never fly.”
Gray is referring to this summer’s scandal in Spain, where prosecutors are investigating the soccer federation president there, Luis Rubiales. He kissed a Spanish woman player on the mouth without her consent after the team won the World Cup.
Rubiales has denied any wrongdoing and refused to resign, but he has since been suspended by FIFA and the player, Jennifer Hermoso, has filed a complaint with prosecutors. This week the Spanish federation also fired the women's national team coach, Jorge Vilda, and replaced him with a woman, Montse Tomé.
Last year, U.S. soccer was also rocked by a harassment and abuse scandal involving four male coaches in the professional National Women's Soccer League (NWSL). Gray says her organization last fall conducted a survey of U.S. female soccer players and found almost three-fourths of them had experienced some sort of sexual harassment or discrimination.
Gray, a former player at the University of California-Berkeley, urges FIFA to mandate stronger sexual misconduct monitoring mechanisms at every national federation.
“FIFA in general does not have a great reputation amongst the women’s side of our game," says Gray.
"Oh God, it’s such a boy’s club, it’s that feeling, and so you don’t feel supported, which makes you not want to report abuse.”
Gray adds that also tends to dissuade women players from later becoming coaches, leaving an inordinate number of men to fill that role.
Ducena in Haiti says she and the other human rights lawyers pushing for Jean-Bart’s prosecution are also calling on child and female protection organizations there to be officially embedded in the national soccer federation.
“It's necessary so that girls can at any time feel comfortable to complain," says Ducena.
"This is an opportunity for Haitian soccer women and girls to have confidence back.”
Both on the field — and off it.
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