After the Quake, Depend on Women
Posted on: Friday, January 15, 2010
Editor’s Note: MADRE, an international women's human rights group, is working with the Haitian relief organization, Zanmi Lasante, to bring humanitarian aid into the country overland from the Dominican Republic.
In the wake of disasters like the catastrophic earthquake that struck Haiti, it can be comforting to see big international agencies taking charge of relief and reconstruction efforts. No doubt international agencies—with their resources, know-how, heavy machinery, and access to government—have a critical role to play. But large-scale relief operations are not always best suited to meet the needs of those who are made most vulnerable by disaster, namely, women and their children.
Women in Haiti have been made vulnerable for a constellation of reasons. First, the Haitian population at large has been buffeted by forces beyond their control for generations. Harmful and manipulative international economic policies, like unfair U.S. agricultural subsidies, disadvantage local farmers and undermine Haitian self-sufficiency. In 2008, Haiti was slammed by a succession of four hurricanes, spreading destruction from which it had yet to fully recover. All this means that Haiti’s infrastructure was weak, poverty was rampant, and people had little access to much-needed social services.
Then, the earthquake struck.
All Haitians are suffering right now. But, women are often hardest hit when disaster strikes because they were at a deficit even before the catastrophe. In Haiti, and 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. Women are also overwhelmingly responsible for other vulnerable people, including infants, children, the elderly, and people who are ill or disabled.
Because of their role as caretakers and because of 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.
It is not enough to ensure that women 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 women are morally superior. It is because their roles as caretakers in the community means they know where every family lives, which households have new babies or disabled elders, and how to reach remote communities even in disaster conditions.
Moreover, women in the community have expertise about the specific problems women and their families face during disasters.
Unfortunately, in big relief operations, already-marginalized people are usually the ones who "fall through the cracks." After Hurricane Katrina, for example, many battered women didn't use missing person registries for fear that they would enable their abusers to find them. Women’s organizations, recognizing the documented trend of a surge in violence against women after a disaster, were able to provide community support services for battered women.
Rather than replicating the work of existing organizations, relief and reconstruction programs should leave resources and training in the hands of community women who therefore become better equipped to rebuild their lives and communities on a stronger foundation. What Haiti needs most in the long-term is the resilience that comes from having responsive democratic government and vibrant health, education and social institutions. We must work with women in the wake of this earthquake to build that resilience.
Marie St. Cyr is a MADRE board member and a longtime NYC-based Haitian human rights advocate. Yifat Susskind is MADRE's policy and communications director. This article appeared on New America Media.
Archives"Press Room" Home July 2014 June 2014 May 2014 April 2014 March 2014 February 2014 January 2014 December 2013 November 2013 October 2013 September 2013 August 2013 July 2013 June 2013 May 2013 April 2013 March 2013 February 2013 January 2013 December 2012 November 2012 October 2012 September 2012 August 2012 July 2012 June 2012 May 2012 April 2012 March 2012 February 2012 January 2012 December 2011 November 2011 October 2011 September 2011 August 2011 July 2011 June 2011 May 2011 April 2011 March 2011 February 2011 January 2011 December 2010 November 2010 October 2010 September 2010 August 2010 July 2010 June 2010 May 2010 April 2010 March 2010 February 2010 January 2010 December 2009 November 2009 October 2009 September 2009 August 2009 July 2009 June 2009 May 2009 April 2009 March 2009 February 2009 January 2009 December 2008 November 2008 October 2008 September 2008 August 2008 July 2008 June 2008 May 2008 April 2008 March 2008 February 2008 January 2008 December 2007 November 2007 October 2007 September 2007 August 2007 June 2007 May 2007 April 2007 March 2007 February 2007 January 2007 December 2006 November 2006 October 2006 September 2006 July 2006 June 2006 April 2006 March 2006 January 2006 December 2005 November 2005 September 2005 August 2005 July 2005 April 2005 March 2005 November 2004 October 2004 April 2004 March 2004 January 2004 December 2003 October 2003 September 2003 June 2003 April 2003 January 2003 September 2002 June 2002 January 2002 November 2001 October 2001 September 2001 August 2001 January 2001
MADRE & Our Partners Make News
Haitian woman faces death threats for speaking out about violence against women (WBEZ Worldview, July 16, 2014)
Media Spotlight Turns Away from Iraq, as Concerns Mount Over Human Rights and Political Stalemate (Uprising Radio, July 11, 2014)
Iraq: The women left behind (Aljazeera, July 3, 2014)
Under Isis, Iraqi women again face an old nightmare: violence and repression (The Guardian, July 3, 2014)
How Can We Protect Women From A Sexual Jihad? (HuffPost Live, June 26, 2014)