HAITI: Displaced Women Face Double Jeopardy

  • by Marguerite A. Suozzi (united nations)
  • Inter Press Service

Ninaj Raul, director of Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees (HWHR), an NGO based in Brooklyn, New York, is currently in Leogane, Haiti providing medical and nutritional aid for victims of the Jan. 12 earthquake at a grassroots level and trying to fill in the gaps larger organisations have failed to reach.

'It's one of those situations no one could have been ready for,' Raul told IPS in a telephone interview. 'Right now I'm at this orphanage, and it's completely destroyed.'

'I have this girl sitting on my lap that had both of her legs amputated, and it's people like her that really give you strength,' Raul told IPS.

She is working in collaboration with members of El Movimiento de Mujeres Dominico-Haitiana and el Movimiento Socio Cultural Para los Trabajadores Haitianos. The three groups have gone to camps and orphanages in Jacmel, Leogane, Petit Goave, Grand Goave and Martissant.

Vaccinating women to protect them from infectious diseases is a priority, as is feeding women who are now unable to provide for themselves and their families. Raul told IPS that members of HWHR brought over-the-counter medicines and nutritional bars from the United States in overweight suitcases.

But beyond addressing the most urgent needs, these organisations are also hoping to aid some women's return to self-sufficiency over the longer term.

'In Leogane, there was a group of women who know how to make bricks,' Miriam Neptune, a filmmaker and a volunteer at HWHR, told IPS.

'They said okay, if we're stuck here, and this is where we're living right now, maybe we can find a way to get some support to start a brick-making operation, a collective,' she said.

It is well-known that in humanitarian crises, women become more vulnerable to gender-based violence and abuse as the maintenance of law and order is challenged, and infrastructure ceases to function.

In a video shot by Neptune, Raul described an incident at a camp in Martissant, a slum in Port-au-Prince, where a woman had been gang-raped by men in the camp.

'There is a lack of security, particularly for the women,' said Raul, 'Women are really vulnerable.'

'An increase in violence against women is often one of the devastating consequences of crises, whether brought on by natural disasters or wartime,' Dr. Henia Dakkak, a technical advisor in the Humanitarian Response Branch at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), told IPS.

'When large numbers of people are displaced, separated from their families and communities, when civil society is virtually nonexistent with police, legal, health, education and social services severely weakened and stress and tension and poverty among populations high, women and girls are especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation,' she said.

'In Haiti, where women and girls already faced high rates of violence, this is a serious concern that UNFPA and other agencies are addressing,' Dakkak said.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has set up 16 food distribution sites throughout Port-au-Prince, and has gone as far as to set up food distributions exclusively for women in hopes of preventing violence against women in mixed-sex lines, and precluding stronger men from repeatedly pushing their way to the front of distribution lines.

Health emergencies are also exacerbated by the absence of medical care and supplies in times of crisis.

Dakkak told IPS that the UNFPA is particularly concerned about pregnant women in Haiti in the wake of the natural disaster. As a precaution, the UNFPA is distributing thousands of medical kits to expectant mothers who may not be able to reach medical facilities when they go into labour.

'It is estimated that there are 63,000 pregnant women in the affected area, with 7,000 due to deliver in the next month. Before the quake, Haiti was the most dangerous place to be a pregnant woman in the Western Hemisphere, with the lifetime risk of dying in childbirth one in 47,' Dakkak told IPS.

Experts at the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) acknowledged on Monday that the needs of women must be met in the wake of the humanitarian crisis, in order to ensure their active and effective participation in the reconstruction of their country.

'Whilst the strength and resilience of women are in high demand following such emergencies, they cannot adequately fulfill these roles if their basic needs are unmet and if decision-makers ignore them,' said Naéla Mohamed Gabr, the head of CEDAW, and a women's rights expert.

'The needs and capabilities of women must be taken into consideration in all sectors and clusters of the emergency response, as the role of women in early recovery is critical to effective implementation and long term sustainability,' she said.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service