After the Quake, Depend on Women
Editor’s Note: MADRE ,
an international women's human rights group, is working with the
Haitian relief organization, Zanmi Lasante, to bring humanitarian aid
into the country overland from the Dominican Republic.
If you want to help alleviate the suffering in Haiti, give your money to the women.
In the wake of disasters like the catastrophic earthquake that struck
Haiti, it can be comforting to see big international agencies taking
charge of relief and reconstruction efforts. No doubt international
agencies—with their resources, know-how, heavy machinery, and access to
government—have a critical role to play. But large-scale relief
operations are not always best suited to meet the needs of those who
are made most vulnerable by disaster, namely, women and their children.
Women in Haiti have been made vulnerable for a constellation of
reasons. First, the Haitian population at large has been buffeted by
forces beyond their control for generations. Harmful and manipulative
international economic policies, like unfair U.S. agricultural
subsidies, disadvantage local farmers and undermine Haitian
self-sufficiency. In 2008, Haiti was slammed by a succession of four
hurricanes, spreading destruction from which it had yet to fully
recover. All this means that Haiti’s infrastructure was weak, poverty
was rampant, and people had little access to much-needed social
Then, the earthquake struck.
All Haitians are suffering right now. But, women are often hardest hit
when disaster strikes because they were at a deficit even before the
catastrophe. In Haiti, and in every country, women are the poorest and
often have no safety net, leaving them most exposed to violence,
homelessness and hunger in the wake of disasters. Women are also
overwhelmingly responsible for other vulnerable people, including
infants, children, the elderly, and people who are ill or disabled.
Because of their role as caretakers and because of the discrimination
they face, women have a disproportionate need for assistance. Yet, they
are often overlooked in large-scale aid operations. In the chaos that
follows disasters, aid too often reaches those who yell the loudest or
push their way to the front of the line. When aid is distributed
through the "head of household" approach, women-headed families may not
even be recognized, and women within male-headed families may be
marginalized when aid is controlled by male relatives.
It is not enough to ensure that women receive aid. Women in communities
must also be integral to designing and carrying out relief efforts.
When relief is distributed by women, it has the best chance of reaching
those most in need. That’s not because women are morally superior. It
is because their roles as caretakers in the community means they know
where every family lives, which households have new babies or disabled
elders, and how to reach remote communities even in disaster
Moreover, women in the community have expertise about the specific problems women and their families face during disasters.
Unfortunately, in big relief operations, already-marginalized people
are usually the ones who "fall through the cracks." After Hurricane
Katrina, for example, many battered women didn't use missing person
registries for fear that they would enable their abusers to find them.
Women’s organizations, recognizing the documented trend of a surge in
violence against women after a disaster, were able to provide community
support services for battered women.
Rather than replicating the work of existing organizations, relief and
reconstruction programs should leave resources and training in the
hands of community women who therefore become better equipped to
rebuild their lives and communities on a stronger foundation. What
Haiti needs most in the long-term is the resilience that comes from
having responsive democratic government and vibrant health, education
and social institutions. We must work with women in the wake of this
earthquake to build that resilience.
Marie St. Cyr is a MADRE board member and a longtime NYC-based
Haitian human rights advocate. Yifat Susskind is MADRE's policy and