International Policy/United Nations

U.N. Delivers Relief Directly to Haitian Women

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The U.N. has devised various programs to provide food and aid directly to women, who often get outmuscled by men during disaster situations. Relief efforts have become complicated as many Haitian female leaders who worked with U.N. agencies were lost during the earthquake.

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A Haitian girl rests after receiving treatment at an ad hoc medical clinic.UNITED NATIONS, New York--With 45 percent of Haitian households headed by women, a number of United Nations agencies are targeting their relief efforts at Haitian women to help them overcome their human and material losses from the recent earthquake.

"They are the ones who are the economic as well as the psychological mainstay of children and other dependents, the aged and the sick," said Roberta Clarke, regional program director for the United Nations Development Fund for Women, or UNIFEM.

"You can imagine that in the context of pre-existing vulnerabilities--poverty, exposure to gender-based violence and lack of health care services--that this earthquake has dealt a heavy blow to women already stretched to the limits of their capacities to support their families," Clarke said in a conference call last week with reporters.

The experience of humanitarian workers in disaster relief is that men usually outmuscle women for food and other aid at distribution points in the desperate days and weeks following a catastrophe, according to various U.N. officials. In response, the United Nations has devised various programs aimed at bypassing men to get aid directly to women and from them to their dependents.

The World Food Program, or WFP, has developed women-only centers for food distribution in Haiti. WFP spokesman Marcus Prior said Saturday that 10,000 women a day will be given 55-pound bags of rice at 16 WFP distribution points around the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. The women will be given coupons over the next 15 days, which they alone can use in exchange for the rice.

Prior said at a news conference in Port-au-Prince that women could bring family members along to help them carry the rice, but only they would receive the bags. The coupons would be color-coded to help foil counterfeiting, he said.

"Traditionally, WFP has always sought to deliver food into the hands of women as they are more likely to ensure that the food is divided up amongst those who really need it and can't fend for themselves," said Prior in an email interview from the Haitian capital.

Building Distribution System from Scratch

"Our earthquake response here in Haiti is the most complex operation we have ever launched," Prior said. "The whole supply chain infrastructure has also been completely blown apart--we are starting the operation almost from scratch, initially with staff here who lived through the earthquake, many of them losing loved ones and now still living without a roof over their heads, but back at work."

Many female leaders who worked with U.N. agencies were among those lost in the earthquake. The loss of these leaders has also complicated relief efforts by UNIFEM and other U.N. agencies such as the United Nations Population Fund, or UNFPA, Clarke said

Among those killed were Myriam Merlet, the ministry's chief of cabinet and founder of Haiti's National Coordination for Advocacy on Women's Rights; Myrna Narcisse, the ministry's director general; Magalie Marcelin, founder of KayFamn, which operates Haiti's only shelter for survivors of gender-based violence; and Anne-Marie Coriolon, a founding member of one of the country's largest women's groups, Solidarite Fanm Ayisyèn.

"Women's organizations suffered terrible losses during the earthquake," Clarke said. "The [Ministry of Women's Condition and Rights] lost one of its buildings and a number of women leaders lost their lives and that will have a significant impact on gender equality."

UNIFEM, for instance, before the quake was about to deliver a shipment of motorbikes to Ministry of Justice officials to specifically help speed up response time to reports of gender violence. The Justice Ministry building collapsed.

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