Haitian Women Demand Role in Rebuilding Their Country

Haitian Women Demand Role in Rebuilding Their Country

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NEW YORK — Almost three months after the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated Haiti, women advocates and UN officials are increasingly worried that Haitian women are being sidelined in national relief and reconstruction efforts.

While a majority of Haitian women have shouldered the responsibility of meeting the needs of children, the elderly, orphans, homeless and thousands of newly disabled people, advocates say they often find themselves at the end of the line for needed aid, including access to food, water, supplies and medicine. Some do not even get the aid intended for them.

In displacement camps, women have also reportedly become more vulnerable to rape, sexual abuse and gender-based violence. Since the quake, thousands of women and young girls have been living in open-air camps with no electricity, and often share a communal bathroom and sleeping area with men who are not related to them.

"The women are the first responders after the earthquake,” said Kathy Mangones, coordinator of the Haiti Program of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). “About 48 percent of Haitian households are headed by women. But now they are getting marginalized again."

Mangones spoke recently at a press conference sponsored by the international women’s support organization MADRE to focus attention on the need for Haitian women’s involvement in rebuilding their country. Citing Haiti's long history of gender bias, Mangones said that donors and international relief organizations should give women priority in receiving aid. She said that many women do not get their fair share because men are getting the lion’s share.

"We should build proper housing for women, separate bathrooms. If we do not correct the past mistakes, this is going to be a vicious cycle,” Mangones said. “Women in Haiti will always be the victims of social inequalities."

Marie Saint Cyr, chair of the board of directors of the Lambi Fund of Haiti, said that while aid is critically important in protecting and helping Haitian women and young girls, it is "just a Band-Aid" and not enough to solve the growing problems. The bigger picture, she added, is that women’s issues should be integrated into state policies.

"We can't build a country on aid. We can't run our lives by projects. The women of Haiti suffer disproportionately in the policy environment, and so we must have a policy shift," she said. "We can't afford to have a business-as-usual attitude. We must ensure that in all rebuilding and reconstruction efforts, women's needs, expertise and contributions are recognized."

As an agricultural country, Cyr added, the nation's agricultural sector must be strengthened and used to create jobs for women.

Nigel Fisher, president and CEO of UNICEF Canada, echoed her call for deeper policy changes that promote equality.

"The earthquake didn't kill 250,000 people, but the poverty and weak buildings did,” he said. “We need to help the Haitian government to build its capacity and sustainability through a comprehensive policy."

Calling for the support of donors, Haitian government and international organizations, Fisher said that the devastation of the earthquake could be "an opportunity to emphasize the country's policy and governance" and "accentuate gender issues."

Last week, Haitian government officials and international stakeholder representatives gathered at the UN headquarters to discuss a Post-Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) draft that will serve as a roadmap for Haiti's reconstruction. The UN has allocated $11.5 billion for Haiti's recovery plans over the next 10 years.

But the advocates and UN officials at the MADRE event unanimously agreed that the draft appeared to be incomplete. Of the eight sectors that PDNA focuses on only one peripherally addresses gender.

To have an effective post-earthquake recovery plan, Fisher mapped out five priorities that include gender at all sectors: Ensure active participation of women; rebuilding process in accordance with gender issues; ensure safe housing for women and young girls; ensure participation of women in the job market; and security for women and young girls against violence and sexual abuse, especially in displacement camps.

"Women’s issues and an action plan for recovery should be built together," said Winnie Byanyima, director of the UNDP Gender Team. "The recovery efforts should be drafted with women's role in mind — and not just include women's issues when the plan is already made."