The Women of Haiti Still in Rubble

By Michelle Chen Jul 12, 2010

Today marks 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 scrambles, 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 neglect.

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 report 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 Kreyòl-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.

Photo by Getty Images/Lee Celano