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After the Quake, Depend on Women

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.