October: All About Haiti

This month at MADRE, we saw some major developments in our efforts in Haiti.

The first was a huge step in our campaign to make the sprawling tent encampments of Port-au-Prince safer for women and families who have been subsisting there all year. In response to the terribly high rates of rape and sexual violence being committed in the camps, MADRE filed a petition to the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights. We called on the Commission to enact emerency measures to help prevent rape–namely, lighting and security in the camps. This is a top demand of our sisters in Haiti, and we are doing all we can to make sure that these basic safety provisions are put in place. (Click here to view the press release and read the petition.)
In the meantime, through MADRE's Helping Hands campaign, we sent another shipment of whistles to help our sisters protect themselves against rape. The sound of the whistle deters rapists and alerts others when a woman needs help. Click here to view a video of Haitian women discussing the whistles as a simple, but powerful tool in their fight against rape. 
Even before we had a chance to file our legal petition for emergency measures to prevent rape, another emergency struck: cholera. We wrote to you as soon as we heard that our partners at KOFAVIV were identifiying cases, bringing sick people for treatment and working double-time to educate women and families in the camps about how to contain the potentially deadly outbreak.

Thanks to MADRE members, we were able to respond to yet another crisis in Haiti this month and still move forward on our longer-term campaign of combating sexual violence in the camps

Why No One Should Die of Cholera

On the occasion of my first post as a MADRE blogger, let me talk frankly about poop–more specifically, diarrhea. While in the West we may think of it as a schoolyard song or a day-ruining embarrassment, in poor areas of the world, it is actually terrifying. The World Health Organization estimates that at least 2.2 million people per year die from diarrhea—  a staggering four percent of annual deaths worldwide. And cholera–a waterborne bacterial infection–is one of its most common causes. Once cholera strikes, a patient can become dehydrated quickly, and if untreated, die within hours.

The disease, though, is heartbreakingly easy to prevent. Why? Well, for the same reason it’s such a ruthless killer: it’s all about access to clean water. Quite simply–since cholera lives in water–if you have access to clean water, you probably won’t get cholera. If you don’t, you’re constantly at risk. On top of that, the disease only manifests itself in about 25% of those infected, and because it can take up to two weeks to make its presence known, it can be difficult to detect until it’s too late. But when you look at the recommended methods of preventing cholera, you get a pretty good idea of why cholera is virtually unheard of in the Global North, but is a constant threat in the Global South: as I alluded to above, the best prevention methods are drinking clean water, handwashing, and using clean sanitary facilities.

You can connect the dots: it’s a perfect disease of the world’s poor. There’s no reason anyone in this age should die of something so preventable, but without access to clean water, people in the Global South are sitting ducks.

The reason I say this, of course, is that relief agencies and the Haitian government are bracing for a cholera epidemic to reach the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince. Once there, it could devastate people uprooted by January’s earthquake; still living in displacement camps. In short, prevention only works to contain an outbreak if people have the right resources, and enough of them. And Haiti just doesn’t have enough– while impressive public education campaigns are being mounted and supplies are being distributed, officials are planning for cholera to be a big problem in Haiti for the coming months.

But it’s not as dire as it could be. Even though clean water and sanitation (and therefore, the most effective preventative measures) are unavailable to many Haitians, treatment is comparably simple and much more available. Treatment of cholera involves early detection, and an IV drip of simple electrolytes, sometimes accompanied by antibiotics. It’s inexpensive and effective. And it can be done on a fairly large scale.

If Haiti can make it through this epidemic without the displacement camps being decimated, it will be a success of emergency efforts to contain and treat cholera. But emergency efforts aren’t, in the long run, going to cut it for Haiti. Along with earthquake reconstruction will need to come serious investment in Haiti’s water infrastructure. And the US has not been a good-faith player in Haiti’s natural resource development in the past: our government has consistently supported anti-democratic forces and foreign control of Haiti’s agricultural infrastructure. In 2000, the Bush Administration pressured the Inter-American Development Bank to cancel more than $650 million in development assistance and approved loans to Haiti — money that was slated to pay for not only safe drinking water, but also literacy programs and health services, both of which also fight infectious disease. 

The cholera epidemic is yet another reminder about post-earthquake Haiti: stopgaps aren’t going to work. Once the threat of disease has been eliminated, let’s get the problem at its source (no pun intended) and fund development that helps Haitians and not large American businesses. People shouldn’t have to die from cholera, and it’s in our government’s power to help make that a reality for Haiti.

In Fight Against Femicide, Whistles Win

Diana and Lisa’s recent trip to Haiti reminded us of the remarkable power in a simple tool: a plastic whistle.  During their visit, women from KOFAVIV, an organization founded by and for rape survivors, gathered in circles, singing, clapping, and dancing in place as brightly-colored whistles bounced from lanyards around their necks.  The whistles, which the women blow in three long bursts to alert each other of attack, are a security lifeline in camp residents’ fight against a continuing epidemic of sexual violence.

“Personally,” said one, “I feel like I am a strong, fearless woman when I have my whistle, especially when other women are responding with their own whistle.  We stand tall to run after these men who think they can take control.”  Women and girls of all ages, many of whom lost family members and support systems in the devastating quake, often face  isolated walks on unlit paths patrolled by violent gangs, and recent reports (including MADRE’s own, co-authored with IJDH) also list numerous incidents of attackers entering their tents or dragging them off in broad daylight.  Yet camp residents repeat that simple whistles and flashlights continue to play a key role in their independently-formed, women-run security patrols’ success against the violence.

Our new initiative to collect and distribute these lifesaving tools dovetails with MADRE’s continuing campaign to bring more of those same flashlights and whistles to the women of Guatemala. There, gender-motivated violence has reached such epidemic levels — 4,000 women murdered in the last ten years, and the number continues to rise — that feminist and human rights workers around the world have recognized it as a strategy of “femicide”.  In the face of a similar lack of police protection and government intervention, flashlights and whistles collected and sent by our Helping Hands team provide Guatemalan women with the power to take back their own right to security.

We know that these are only temporary measures. More lasting solutions must come from government policies that prioritize ending violence against women. They must come from post-disaster reconstruction policies that place women's voices at the center. But we also know that whistles can save women's lives today. Click here or email us at helpinghands@madre.org to find out more.

Thinking about Food Sovereignty and Gender

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently released their 2010 report on the State of Food Insecurity in the World.

"The number of undernourished people remains unacceptably high," the report begins – higher, in fact, than it was 40 years ago. To address this problem, the report lays out various key messages: the importance of long-term responses, supporting local institutions, agriculture and the rural economy, modifying the current aid architecture to address both immediate needs and underlying structural causes of crises, and employing humanitarian food assistance and social protection.

Clearly, a report proposing ways to ensure food security would be incomplete without a focus on gender; women and girls around the world play a primary role in managing the household's food and water, as well as a substantial role in actually growing and selling the food produced. In fact, investing in women is proven to enhance food security.

Where this report falters is in discussing the disproportionate affect crises have on women and girls, without simultaneously centering the value of women's leadership in solving the issue of food insecurity. As community members with crucial expertise in sustainable farming practices, the key role of women in agriculture must be recognized if we are to combat food crises.

In reading the report, it is an important complement to think about the move away from the term "food security" and towards the term "food sovereignty". Food sovereignty is a term coined by the international organization Via Campesina in 1996, and goes beyond the concept of food security in that it promotes the right of all people to not only have access to food, but to exercise agency over what food they eat, how and where it is produced, and by whom.

In addition, food sovereignty confronts neoliberal trade policies that emphasize export, defending instead the right of local populations to their own food, as well as promoting local participation is defining agrarian policies, and acknowledging the rights of women farmers – rights that are too often abused.

For more on the links between food security, food sovereignty, and gender, MADRE's projects in Nicaragua and Sudan offer great examples of how supporting women farmers and backing sustainable, local projects can enhance not only a population's access to food but a population's access to good, sustainable, local, and healthy food.

Read the Legal Petition to Protect Women and Girls in Haiti

Yesterday, I wrote about an international legal petition, submitted by MADRE and other human rights organizations, to protect women living in the displacement camps in Haiti.  The petition, submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, seeks for the Commission to demand urgent measures (known as “precautionary measures”) from the Haitian government and other institutions operating in Haiti.  These measures would include installing lighting and increasing security.

The world of international law can often seem far removed from the realities that women are facing in the camps.  Efforts like this petition work to bridge that divide.  Such efforts take the stories of horrific abuses, of women and girls profoundly traumatized, of glaring police indifference, of the overt stigma faced by rape survivors , of the lack of security and of the climate of impunity–and they bring them into spaces in which we can demand accountability and action.

This petition was brought about on behalf of thirteen Haitian women and girls, known in the legal text as “Petitioners.”

Below, I’ve shared excerpts from the petition (emphasis added):

The Haitian government has not adequately protected the human rights of women in the IDP camps. Little or no safety or protection has been provided for women and girls living in tents and under tarps in IDP camps, leaving women and girls at great risk of rape and sexual abuse. To the contrary, conditions in the camps have led to even greater insecurity and risk of sexual violence.  Petitioners have experienced rape and attempted rape, severe beatings, and repeated threats to their lives in retaliation for reporting the rapes or helping other victims at the hands of private and public actors. Many women report that they have been raped on multiple occasions since the earthquake. The government has no comprehensive plan for permanent or transitional housing for the 1.5 million residents of the over 2,000 IDP camps; there is no end in sight for the dangerous conditions in which the Petitioners live.

Haitian grassroots women’s groups have begun creating their own security, including organizing groups of trusted men to take shifts patrolling in some camps, including accompanying women walking to and from portable toilets, particularly at night. However, Haitian women leaders and human rights defenders living and working in the IDP camps have experienced retaliation, fear, and death threats as a result of their efforts and sexual violence persists at alarming rates.


The government of Haiti must take preventative measures to reduce the incidents of rape and sexual assault faced by women and girls living in the IDP camps. Rape survivors interviewed have noted the following issues, which require urgent attention: lack of lighting; lack private bathing facilities; lack of tents or any other secure living facilities; and lack of policing.

The petition also contains first-person accounts from women who have faced sexual violence since the earthquake.  To read a redacted version of the petition, with names and personal information obscured, click here.

Filing a Legal Petition to Demand Security for Displaced Haitian Women

Today, MADRE is joining with other human rights organization to submit a legal petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).  Partnering with local Haitian organizations, this petitions asks that the IACHR require the Haitian government and other key institutions to install lighting, increase security and institute other measures to confront the epidemic of sexual violence against women and girls in the camps.

A press release we sent out this morning has more:

Today, a group of advocates and attorneys for displaced women in Haiti submitted a petition calling for urgent action to confront an epidemic of sexual violence in the camps for displaced people.  Evidence gathered through multiple on-the-ground investigations has revealed a shocking pattern of rape, beatings and threats against the lives of women and girls living in the camps.  This petition for precautionary measures before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) calls for the IACHR to require that the government of Haiti and the international community take such immediate action as ensuring security and installing lighting in the camps.

Since the catastrophic January 12 earthquake took some 200,000 lives and rendered 1.5 million people homeless, women and girls living in the camps have faced bleak conditions and a constant threat of rape.  Lawyers and researchers, partnering with Haitian grassroots women’s groups, have documented testimonies where women have been brutally attacked in their tents or while walking down poorly-lit paths within the camps.  Meanwhile, basic preventative measures such as providing lighting, privacy, security and housing have been critically lacking.

This is one step in a larger process of demanding accountability and action to protect women's lives in the camps for displaced people in Haiti.  Haitian grassroots women's groups, such as MADRE's partner KOFAVIV, daily confront the reality of the threat of rape and have created short-term solutions to save lives now–distributing whistles to deter rapists, organizing neighborhood watch groups and more.  But their efforts must be amplifed by a broader, international effort to condemn this violence and to implement policy changes that ensure women's safety.

Take Action for World Food Day: Tell USAID to Buy Local in Sudan

Today is World Food Day, a chance for us to recognize the lethal threat that hunger poses to millions across the globe and to uplift innovative solutions.  MADRE sister organization in Sudan, Zenab for Women in Development, is creating just those solutions.  We've written on this blog about how their successful efforts to create a union of women farmers has helped them to see more fruitful harvests that generate income for their communities.  Women have pooled their resources to pay for their daughters' educations, to build a community center and to expand opportunities for themselves and for their families.

You can support women farmers, like the ones supported by Zenab for Women in Development and MADRE.  Sign this petition today and call for your tax dollars to support women farmers–not giant agribusinesses. 

Here's how it currently works in Sudan: Our tax dollars are used to buy grain from US factory farms—the same giant corporations that already receive $26 billion in tax subsidies. Then the grain is transported halfway around the world, using thousands of gallons of fossil fuel and releasing tons of harmful carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The transport typically takes months while hungry people grow more desperate. Once the food finally arrives, it floods agricultural markets, weakening farmers' abilities to make a living from their work. Small-scale farmers are the first to go bankrupt. Most are small-holder women farmers, who work small plots of land hoping to sell enough at market to buy cooking oil, flour, a bar of soap and a pair of shoes so a child can stay in school. This kind of globalized distribution method undermines the very people it seeks to help.

Click here to send a message to US policymakers: food aid crops should be purchased directly from women farmers in the regions targeted to receive assistance.

Blog Action Day 2010 – MADRE’s ‘Water Rights Are Human Rights’ Project in Kenya

This is the last of three blogs we are posting today as participants in Blog Action Day. This year's Blog Action Day topic is water. Our first two blogs discussed two MADRE projects – 'Clean Water for Gaza' in Palestine, and 'Women Waterkeepers' in Nicaragua – both of which work to secure access to clean water for people in the communities of our sister organizations.

Access to clean water is a human right, and yet women and their families around the globe still struggle, everyday, to obtain it. Lack of access to clean water also had broad-reaching consequences. Water-borne illnesses significantly impact a population's health, productivity is lessened due to these health problems, and women and girls must spend their time and energy fetching water and caring for the sick, instead of contributing to productivity or going to school.

In Kenya, climate change and environmental degredation have intensified the water crisis. When people in the United States flush the toilet, they use as much water as most people in Kenya use in an entire day. The Indigenous Maasai Peoples of Southwest Kenya do not have a centralized system to bring water into their community. As a result, women must walk to the nearest spring to collect water. The spring is 2.5 km away and also serves as a watering hole for livestock. The water is thus not only difficult to access, but also highly contaminated, leading to a high incidence of water-borne diseases, including cholera, typhoid and scabies. MADRE and our sister organization, the Indigenous Information Network (IIN), are working together to make clean, easily accessible water a reality in this Indigenous Kenyan community.

To do this, a water purification system has been put in place that will be managed by members of the community. This system will not only eliminate contaminants from the drinking water, but will additionally transport the water to the community, thereby drastically reducing the amount of time these women have to spend obtaining water.

For more information about MADRE's projects, and information on how to donate, click here.

Blog Action Day 2010 – MADRE’s ‘Women Waterkeepers’ Project in Nicaragua

As highlighted in my previous blog, today is Blog Action Day! Here at MADRE, we are participating in this global event by blogging about water, the dire situations those living in many countries face in the way of access to clean water, and what MADRE and our partners are doing to broaden this access.

As mentioned previously, 884 million people – approximately one in eight people – do not have access to safe water supplies. Because women and girls around the world are often responsible for bringing water to their homes, it is also women and girls that are most detrimentally impacted by the lack of access to clean water; they must walk miles every day to fetch water, find some way to supply water to both crops and family, and care for family members that get sick from water-borne diseases. Without addressing the water crisis, development that upholds women's human rights is impossible. 

My previous blog entry detailed MADRE's work with the Clean Water Project in Gaza, where MADRE is helping to install water filters throughout Gaza city. In a completely different area of the world, MADRE and our sister organization Wangki Tangni are training Indigenous women in Nicaragua to sustain a clean water culture through our 'Women Waterkeepers' project. In Nicaragua, the Indigenous population live without health or sanitation infrastructure because the government has not been committed to building this infrastructure.

As a result, Indigenous Nicaraguan children are particularly prone to contract, and die from, the water-borne illnesses that are brought when seasonal flooding carries raw sewage and other contaminants into their water supply. MADRE and Wangki Tangni are working together to reduce the incidence of water-borne disease by training Indigenous women and their family members to maintain latrines and wells, and building a clean water culture through educational posters, seminars and radio programs.

For more information about MADRE's projects, and information on how to donate, click here.