The Women of Haiti Still in Rubble

Yesterday marked one half year since an earthquake flattened
Port-au-Prince. The women of Haiti are still lost in the wreckage.

The human rights of women in post-quake Haiti have been a barometer
of injustice in the international response to the crisis: activists say
poverty, sexual violence and political disenfranchisement have created a
second wave of disaster.

In the immediate aftermath, chronic food and water shortages hit
women especially hard. The haphazard
distribution systems set up by international aid agencies either
led to chaotic
, which threatened to leave women with nothing, or were
simply inadequate to meet their families' needs.

Today, squalid
refugee camps
expose women and girls to various harms, from
violence to disease, while security provisions waver between hyper-militarization
and utter

Reports of sexual assault revealed that rape
was not only a frequent occurrence in camps
, but treated with
humiliating indifference by the authorities governing the camps.
According to the research of MADRE,
the Haiti-based group KOFAVIV, and other organizations:

  • "There is a demonstrated lack of governmental response to sexual
    violence occurring in the camps. This failure to act appears to have two
    prongs - the Haitian government is both unwilling and unable to
    respond. Rape survivors living in the camps told interviewers that
    reporting rape to the police is an exercise in futility since they could
    not identify their assailant or assailants...

  • "Conditions in the camps are bleak. Overcrowding, lack of
    privacy, weakened family and community structures, among other things,
    render women and girls particularly vulnerable to sexual violence. Women
    and girls live in inadequate shelter, often sleeping under nothing more
    than a tarp or blanket, with no means of protection and no friends
    close by, and bathe in public, in view of men and boys.

  • "Sexual assault survivors interviewed spoke of widespread
    occurrence of transactional sex to obtain food aid cards, although each
    interviewee denied having engaged in transactional sex herself. The
    occurrence of coerced transactional sex - a form of rape - is beyond the
    scope of this report and merits an independent investigation."

The idea that the desperation in the camps could give rise to a
sex-trafficking regime is chilling, but any incident of rape or
gender-based violence attests to a blatant neglect of the rights of the
most vulnerable. Yet the crisis could be partially alleviated through
surprisingly simple measures. MADRE noted in a recent
that while law enforcement protections must be strengthened,
safety could be enhanced just by providing women with simple
protections: escorts on their way to and from food aid distribution
points, or adequate supplies of water on site so women are spared from
having to travel to draw clean water.

To lay the long-term groundwork for a society that upholds gender
equity, MADRE says
women's voices are critical to the rebuilding process

Women are active agents and leaders at a grassroots and
community level where they have led development and social justice
projects, their knowledge in terms of local living conditions and
resources should be given full attention and their participation should
be present in every single process of the reconstruction.

MADRE also demands that women obtain "social and political leadership
positions" as Haiti recovers, "and their role as primary caregivers and
responders must also be acknowledged, supported, and enhanced."

While Haiti's recovery has lagged and the media spotlight faded,
MADRE remains focused on the initial steps toward recovery. One recent
milestone is a maternal
health partnership with Circle of Health International, which
enabled teams of Kreyol-speaking midwives to train local midwives and
provide care to some 350 women per day.

There were an estimated 63,000
pregnant women in Haiti when the quake hit. Many reportedly had no
choice but to give birth in the street, others may be struggling to
bring pregnancies to term in camps wracked by hunger and poor
sanitation. For the sons and daughters of the earthquake, their brittle
future hinges on the rebirth of their country, for which their mothers
must bear the burden.

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