News: Port-au-Prince Earthquake: Responses must address Gender

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FRIDAY FILE: The impact of natural disasters is gendered and therefore responses to these disasters must be gender responsive. Six months after the earthquake in Haiti MADRE’s Yifat Susskind spoke with AWID about the gendered impact of the earthquake, and described what a gender responsive approach to addressing the crisis would look like.

AWID: What are the gendered dimensions of the impact of the Haiti earthquake, and why is it so important that these be considered in any humanitarian or policy response?

YIFAT SUSSKIND: Women are often hardest hit when disaster strikes because they were at a deficit even before the catastrophe. In Haiti, as indeed in every country, women are the poorest and often have no safety net, leaving them most exposed to violence, homelessness and hunger in the wake of disasters. They are also overwhelmingly responsible for other vulnerable people, including infants, children, the elderly, and people who are ill or disabled.

Moreover, women face an increased risk of sexual abuse and violence. In humanitarian disasters, they lose essential access to reproductive healthcare services. In addition, they may be denied property rights to rebuild homes, and they may be passed over in aid distributions that target male heads-of-household.

It is not enough to ensure that they receive aid. Women in communities must also be integral to designing and carrying out relief efforts. When relief is distributed by women, it has the best chance of reaching those most in need. That’s not because they are morally superior. It is because their roles as caretakers in the community mean they know where every family lives, which households have new babies or disabled elders, and how to reach remote communities even in disaster conditions.

AWID: What is the situation right now in Haiti? Are humanitarian and reconstruction efforts demonstrating awareness of the need to ensure that their efforts are gender responsive?

YS: The short answer is no. MADRE recently participated in a delegation of human rights lawyers who gathered testimonies from women living in camps for displaced people. In over a week of on-site interviews and explorations, the delegation found sustained and consistently high rates of rape and other forms of gender-based violence in displaced persons’ camps throughout Port-au-Prince that have been occurring since the earthquake.

Women who have reported rape incidents to the police say that they are turned away and are not taken seriously or they are told to notify the police if they see the rapists again. Information regarding medical and legal services for survivors of rape is largely unavailable, and where available, is generally incorrect and incomplete. Where services exist, women face prohibitively long waits, a lack of privacy, and limited access to female healthcare providers. Women’s organizations in Haiti are stepping up to fill this gap and to provide essential services, including medical aid for rape survivors, neighborhood watch patrols and human rights trainings.

AWID: How have women been participating in the relief and reconstruction process at all levels? What has MADRE’s – and the wider women’s movements’ – role been in ensuring that the humanitarian and reconstruction work is gender responsive?

YS: In March 2010, governments gathered at UN headquarters in New York for a major conference on reconstruction in Haiti. The voices of women’s organizations were largely ignored as donor nations set out the international agenda for reconstruction. This has been typical of the approach to relief and reconstruction.

A key missing component of the response has been the space for women at the community level to voice their demands to policy-makers. MADRE has joined the movement of women’s organizations working to amplify the calls of Haitian women. As the donor conference took place in March, MADRE sent a letter to donor nations. This action was taken in our capacity as part of a coalition of Haitian and international women’s organizations formed to demand a women’s human rights-based approach to reconstruction.

With our Haitian sister organization KOFAVIV, we also submitted expert testimony to the UN Human Rights Council, shedding light on the appalling conditions in the camps, the levels of sexual violence Haitian women have faced, and the lack of an adequate response.

MADRE is working to ensure that the people who make policy are in a position to hear from the women who are providing otherwise inaccessible relief services in the camps.

AWID: Natural disasters are devastating for everyone in the vicinity of their occurrence, but it is clear that women are differently -and usually more severely – affected by them on the whole. How can the gender-disproportionate preventable impact of disasters be lessened in future?

YS: Haitian women’s organizations are uniquely positioned to recognize and respond to gender-based threats, which may go unnoticed if a so-called “gender-neutral” approach is adopted for humanitarian aid and reconstruction.

Because of their role as caretakers, and the discrimination they face, women have a disproportionate need for assistance. Yet, they are often overlooked in large-scale aid operations. In the chaos that follows disasters, aid too often reaches those who yell the loudest or push their way to the front of the line. When aid is distributed through the “head of household” approach, women-headed families may not even be recognized, and women within male-headed families may be marginalized when aid is controlled by male relatives.

In a society devastated by disaster, the opportunity to participate in relief and reconstruction efforts is a means to empowerment through access to jobs and resources and skills-training. Participation in the reconstruction process must therefore integrate Haitian community-based and women’s organizations, which represent the majority of the population; those most deeply impacted by the disaster and those groups that have been historically excluded from decision-making in Haiti.

AWID: The earthquake happened almost six months ago. What does the international community need to do right now in order to address the current situation in Haiti? What is urgent for the women of Haiti right now?

YS: The government of Haiti and other major entities coordinating the relief effort must allocate resources immediately to provide for increased security and lighting in the camps to address rampant levels of sexual violence.

Haitian and donor governments must also guarantee women’s full participation and leadership in all phases of the reconstruction of Haiti as mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and other internationally recognized standards.

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