Women face the challenge in Haiti

By Lesley Crosson
8 Mar 2010

As the global community honours the work, struggles and achievements of women on International Women’s Day, 8 March, one way to spotlight their status and the issues they face is to look at recovery efforts underway in earthquake-stricken Haiti.

To those like Saint Elene Alcidonis, 52, newly widowed and the mother of seven children, aged from 10 to 24, the immediate concern is how to take care of families in crowded displacement camps.

Alcidonis’ case is typical of many people in the camps: her husband, Jean-Claude Bien-Aime, 53, a mason and carpenter who perished in the ’quake, was the principal breadwinner in the family.

Without homes to return to and the loss of spouses, many do not know what the long-term or even immediate future holds.

“It could be months, I don’t know what to expect,” Alcidonis told Church World Service (CWS) staffer Chris Herlinger recently, as she prepared morning coffee in one of the many displacement camps in Port-au-Prince - camps where the US ecumenical agency’s Blankets, Hygiene and Baby Kits are being used by earthquake survivors.

“There are so many to take care of,” she said.

Alcidonis’ short-term concern is survival - she is going to have to care for her family. In the long-term, the humanitarian response needs to be based on “resources that will help her and other women gain the skills and support necessary to do so,” said Donna Derr, who coordinates emergency response for CWS. “We’ve been doing it in Haiti and around the world for decades.”

Of course, there are immediate pressures being felt by female survivors of the 'quake. Women, as well as children, face particular risks because of security fears - worries that displacement camps are risky places because of the growing number of sexual assaults.

Given those concerns, humanitarian responders – like ACT Alliance (Action of Churches Together) working in Haiti – need to be vigilant and act as advocates for women and children in an increasingly insecure environment, points out Anna Olivier, a humanitarian worker with ACT member, Norwegian Church Aid. Women and children, she says, are particularly vulnerable and as a result require services especially keyed to their needs.

Current efforts in Haiti, supported by CWS and other international agencies, include programmes to assist female-headed households, building on already-existing initiatives such as those by Viva Rio, a Brazilian organisation which works in Greater Bel Air, a particularly violent area of Port-au-Prince.

Viva Rio has made the issue of security of women a focus of its work; as one example, prior to the quake, it was part of a consortium of organisations that successfully advocated for establishing a police station in Bel Air which responds to sexual assault and domestic violence cases.

Another group working with NCA is Mouvement des Femmes de Citac Soleil, known by the acronym MOFECS, a grassroots group providing psycho-social support for women and girls, as well as organising girls’ clubs and seminars and training for females.

Rose-Anne Auguste, a Haitian who heads the Association for the Promotion of Integral Family Healthcare, known by the Creole acronym APROSIFA, said the work focused on women is necessary, particularly given current conditions in Haiti.

“Yes, we are concerned about the rise of sexual violence,” Auguste told Chris Herlinger, while noting that the APROSIFA had treated female rape survivors long before the ’quake.

Unfortunately, violence is a part of any post-disaster landscape. “People are traumatised and we know how people react in these type of situations,” said Sylvia Raulo, country representative in Haiti for ACT/Lutheran World Federation and one of those coordinating initial CWS-supported relief efforts in Haiti.

Raulo’s work and the work of Haitian and non-Haitian female humanitarian workers in the CWS-supported response in Haiti is another way of spotlighting the contribution of women — especially when media images so often convey the idea that humanitarian work is performed by men.

“Women are humanitarian responders in Haiti; they are also in many cases the backbone of their communities and families,” Derr said. “Their gifts must be front and centre for any kind of humanitarian response and development efforts.”

Church World Service is member of the ACT Alliance, the international coalition of churches and church-related organisations responding to emergencies and collaborating in development work.

Contributions may be made at www.churchworldservice.org/haiti

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© Lesley Crosson works for the Church World Service media team, New York, USA.

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