By Joe Lauria
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.
Despite the losses and challenges, various U.N. agencies are continuing with their efforts to reach women. UNFPA is working with nongovernmental organizations to distribute two kinds of kits to women: one for reproductive health and one for dignity, said Jemilah Mahmood, head of UNFPA's humanitarian response branch.
"One of the issues not talked much about is the issue of dignity," Mahmood said. "We must remember that women and girls are still menstruating despite having to live outside in very deplorable conditions." Embarrassment from soiled clothing prevents women from wanting to be seen at distribution points and many would rather stay away, risking their survival, she said.
The dignity kits contain sanitary napkins, hygiene materials and underwear.
The reproductive health kits are packed with a clean sheet, a sterile blade to cut an umbilical cord, a clean string to tie the cord and a blanket to wrap the baby in.
"We estimate 7,000 women are going to give birth in the next month," many "in the middle of the street," Mahmood said.
UNFPA is also shipping medical equipment to perform Caesarian section surgery, as well as basic post-natal care such as vitamins and medicine, she said.
"We know from past disasters that these moments lead to spikes in violence against women and girls, so there is an urgency that they can get in touch and protect themselves and others in their community," said Clarke.
One way to keep the lines of communication open is to distribute transistor radios to women. UNFPA and a nongovernmental inter-agency group called Communicating with Disaster Affected Populations are in the process of doing just that.
"These transistor radios, often solar-powered, proved to be very instrumental during previous crises, such as that of the Indian Ocean tsunami, in helping women and communities access vital information they'd need after a disaster, such as where to go to receive health care, where to seek protection, obtain food," said UNFPA spokesperson Omar Gharzeddine in an email message. "They can also provide a very useful source of information about lost family members."
Women also use the radios to get answers and counseling from radio talk shows, he said. UNFPA is sending a radio journalist to Haiti to "provide key messages and information pertaining to reproductive health and protection," he said.
Tamara Kreinin, executive director of the Women and Population Program of the U.N. Foundation, said the tragedy of Haiti is that before the earthquake it was making great strides to achieve the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals or MDGs, which seek to eradicate global poverty by 2015, particularly in education and "gender empowerment."
"We are quite saddened that there's going to be a bit of a setback," Kreinin said. Even with the progress towards the MDGs, Haiti had the highest rate of maternal mortality in the region, she said.
The risk of a Haitian woman dying in childbirth is 1 in 47.
"We know that number is going to skyrocket because many of the health facilities were destroyed and incidents of injury and trauma are on the rise," Kreinin said.
Joe Lauria has been a correspondent at the United Nations in New York City for the past 20 years.
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