Haiti, Now and Next

Cracks of Gender Inequality: Haitian Women After the Earthquake

Humanitarian crises usually have calamitous gender-specific results that disproportionately affect women and girls.  Natural disasters are certainly no exception.  In the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated Haiti on January 12, 2010, hundreds of thousands of people were left dead, injured, homeless and jobless.  The circumstances under which many Haitians in Port-au-Prince, Leogane, Jacmel, Petit Goave and surrounding areas have been living since the earthquake present unique challenges to women and girls that must be addressed in relief efforts, recovery programs, and the re-construction of the state.

Over 200,000 people lost their lives in the earthquake, including four significant fanm poto mitan, pillars of the Haitian women’s movement.  These feminist activists were Myriam Merlet, Chief of Cabinet of the Ministry of Women’s Condition and Rights and founder of the umbrella National Coordination for Advocacy on Women's Rights (CONAP); Magalie Marcelin, founder of KayFamn, the only shelter for victims of gender-based violence; Anne-Marie Coriolan, founder of Solidarite Fanm Ayisyèn (SOFA), one of the country’s largest women's advocacy groups; and Myrna Narcisse, Director General of the Ministry of Women’s Condition and Rights.  The loss of these women, each one a champion of human rights and fiercely committed to the equality and protection of Haiti’s female population will be felt strongly by the feminist activist community.  The loss should prompt us to consider how gender inequalities are playing out in the wake of the earthquake, as they certainly would have.

Studies have demonstrated that disaster significantly exacerbates existing inequalities, which is why women and girls are particularly vulnerable right now.  Take for example, how gender introduces distinct health related needs.  According to the United Nations about 63,000 women are currently pregnant in Haiti, which, prior to the earthquake had one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.  These women and the children they bear will require prenatal, labor and delivery, and postnatal care in the imminent future.  How will such care be distributed?  Will these women’s concerns be taken into consideration in all of the pressing medical needs of the country?  Likewise nursing mothers are particularly susceptible to malnutrition and dehydration that could lead to further mortalities.  What other public health issues with gender ramifications are still emerging as a result of the earthquake?

In the immediate rescue period, or first phase of the earthquake response, women and girls were quite visible, being pulled out of rubble, proclaiming faith that helped them through, and flashing smiles of survival in the face of international news agency cameras that seemed to be omnipresent.  They were seen in captivating scenes of hope, marching through the street singing songs of encouragement. Disparities in the distribution of aid are another reason why women and girls are more at risk during humanitarian crises.  While the remarkable patience of the Haitian community, many of whom have gone days without food or water, must be noted, in the event of food riots women and girls are more likely to suffer.  In those situations, the dominant rule is survival of the fittest; the stronger and faster you are the more likely you are to get food.  What will happen to the women and girls scrambling for sustenance in uncontrolled crowds?

Following the rescue, homelessness resulting from the earthquake poses unique challenges to women, exposed under tents that afford little protection for vulnerable populations. There is a dire need for protection and security for those sleeping in the open whose gender puts them more at risk for sexual assault and predatory advances. The high rates of violence against women that activists such as Merlet and Marcelin worked assiduously to address, prevent and reduce, further underscore these security risks. In one study conducted by Kay Fanm it was estimated that 72% of Haitian girls have been raped and 40% of women were victims of domestic violence.  How many can we add to this number since January 12th? How can Haitians, who have exhibited solidarity and organized mobility in response to the catastrophic circumstances surrounding them, effectively tackle gender inequality in a manner worthy of the Merlet, Marcelin, Narcisse, and Coriolan legacy?

A few programs have begun to meet some of these needs.  The United Nations Population Fund very recently implemented the distribution of emergency medical packs for pregnant women.  Likewise the establishment of a coupon system for food that specifically targets women has been created by a coalition that includes the World Food Program and World Vision.  The Haitian Minister of Women’s Affairs Marjorie Michèle also recently announced a “cash for work” program that 100,000 women living in camps will participate in.  While we have yet to see the results from these new measures, they do point to the possibility for positive transformation. The next step must be assistance programs that not only meet their needs, but also provide opportunities for advancement and self-empowerment.  

It is true that the earthquake in Haiti did not discriminate based on class, race, gender or ethnicity.  Members of the MINUSTAH perished alongside those who worked for meager wages in the Hotel Montana. However, the realities of class and gender inequality make it such that women, and especially poor women, will have to go longer strides and a further distance to be brought back to where they were prior to the earthquake.  When we consider where they actually were, troubling to begin with, there is far more work to be done. Furthermore, given the link between violence against women and poverty, there should be increased concern for women in Haiti whose race, class and gender situate them at the nexus of multiple oppressions.  Supporting women’s organizations and increasing educational opportunities for girls are two important areas that should come with the reconstruction of the Haitian state and will help to begin to address gender equality.

The magnitude of brutalities against women and girls all over the globe reveals that this facet of life is not only particular to Haiti.  While in recent years strides have been made in acknowledging that women’s rights are in fact human rights, and that gender based violence be considered a human rights violation, the statistics of violence against women in developing and developed countries remains staggering.  One out of every three women in the world will be sexually or physically assaulted in her lifetime.  The global response to this far-flung devastation in Haiti presents an opportunity to include gender specific analysis and application to humanitarian projects.

Placing women at the center of rebuilding programs will offer opportunities to address the oppression of women in the developing nation.  Rebuilding should draw upon successful endeavors that concentrate on women and girls, such as microfinance loan opportunities or environmental tree planting movements, both models that speak to the significance of gender in sustainable development.  Relief organizations have to take gender into account as they assess the immediate needs, as must Haitians themselves.  They can begin to do so by taking on the causes that were so dear to Merlet and her colleagues as well as championing education for girls, gender equity at all levels of society, and refusing to accept gender violence as a quotidian way of life.

The introduction of I-VAWA, the International Violence Against Women Act, into both the United States House and Senate this week, suggests that this is also an apt time to consider how US involvement in humanitarian relief organizing can make inroads into addressing and eventually ending violence against women.  I-VAWA includes strategies for how international assistance programs can be used to address the needs of women in general and violence against women in particular.  The humanitarian agenda in Haiti must include similar attention and sensitivity to the particular needs of women and girls.

The best way to honor the legacy of our fallen Haitian feminist trailblazers will be to rebuild in a way that includes gender equity, to reconstruct institutions that assist the development of women and girls, and to provide more educational opportunities and resources for women and girls to become agents of transformation.  Girls like one mentioned in a recent Miami Herald article, stating that she was eager to get back to school and when asked why responded, “…because my country is broke and I want to fix it.” Indeed, investing in the potential and the projects of girls and women will have longstanding beneficial effects for the entire country. “Only a mountain can crush a Haitian woman,” asserts the protagonist of Edwidge Danticat’s award winning novel Breath, Eyes, Memory. Applying the perspective of gender to rebuilding efforts would mean not allowing Haitian women to fall in the earthquake’s cracks, and empowering them to be instrumental in rebuilding the country as they have been in various points of history as fanm poto mitan.

Régine Michelle Jean-Charles is an Assistant Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and Romance Languages and Literatures at Boston College and a former Mellon-Mays Fellow.  Her current book manuscript is on the gender violence in Caribbean and African literatures and cultures. She is also a board member and performer for A Long Walk Home, Inc., a non-profit organization that uses art therapy, the visual and performing arts to document, to educate, and to bring about social change by helping victims of trauma heal as well as to increase public awareness about community violence.

More on Haiti at The Immanent Frame, the Council's blog on secularism, religion, and the public sphere.

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Published on: Tuesday, February 09, 2010