In the traumatic weeks after the earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, survivors have endured the loss of loved ones, severe injuries, shortages of food and water, collapsed homes and constant fear of renewed aftershocks. Through it all, we have witnessed the dignity and resilience of the Haitian people and the solidarity of women's rights activists throughout the region and the world. Haitians have dug neighbors out of collapsed buildings, cared for orphaned children and shared dwindling food supplies. A network of women's organizations-in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the broader Latin American and Caribbean region and around the world-have come together with MADRE to provide urgent medical aid and reproductive healthcare, document human rights abuses and give Haitian women the means to raise their voices.
Today, as disaster response shifts from the search-and-rescue phase to rebuilding and reconstruction, Haiti is at a crossroad. It could recreate the status quo ante of economic misery, predatory government and widespread human rights abuses; or rebuild in ways that promote human rights and true development, including much-needed resiliency to disaster.
Realizing the latter vision will require the effective participation of Haitian women in the rebuilding process. In a society devastated by disaster, the opportunity to participate in relief and reconstruction efforts is a means to empowerment through access to jobs, resources and skills-training. Participation in the reconstruction process must therefore include Haitian community-based and women's organizations, which represent the majority of the population, those most deeply impacted by the disaster and those who have been historically excluded from decision-making in Haiti.
Right now, there is a window of opportunity to ensure that Haiti's reconstruction process upholds the full range of women's human rights and uses gender awareness as a starting point for successful recovery efforts. Nothing less than the future of Haiti is at stake.
Women's Organizations Must Play Leadership Roles
After such a disaster, women are confronted with many challenges. They face an increased risk of sexual abuse and violence, particularly at the hands of an intimate partner. They lose essential access to reproductive healthcare services. They may be denied property rights to rebuilt homes. They may be passed over in aid distributions that target male heads-of-household. Haitian women's organizations are uniquely positioned to recognize and respond to these threats, which may go unnoticed if a so-called "gender-neutral" approach is adopted for humanitarian aid and reconstruction.
Reconstruction efforts that operate in partnership with community-based women's organizations can mobilize Haitian women's expertise-as first-responders, caregivers, farmers, teachers, healthcare providers, income-earners and human rights defenders-in the service of broader efforts to rebuild communities. Women can and must play leadership roles, drawing from their knowledge of environmental resources to support agriculture or tapping into informal but vibrant social networks to efficiently direct needed support to the most vulnerable, including children and the elderly.
For decades, MADRE has worked with local women's organizations in Haiti and worldwide, partnering with them to meet urgent community needs in ways that advance human rights and social justice for the long-term. This is the model for successful reconstruction in Haiti today.