Haitian Women Regroup, Rebuild

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Haitian women's rights activists are still living in tents and cars, and mourning the loss of three leaders in the January earthquake. They are also organizing. A loose-knit coalition hopes to rebuild a more women-centered Haiti.

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Maternal Mortality, Early Marriage Worsened

One in 16 Haitian women faces the chance of dying during childbirth during their lifetime, according to the World Health Organization, and almost a quarter of girls and teens are married before age 18.

The earthquake has worsened maternal mortality and early marriage, and the escape of prisoners from the national penitentiary has made women more vulnerable to sexual violence. More than a million people are now homeless in Haiti, according to the United Nations.

Women make up more than 75 percent of Haiti's informal economy and provide most of the labor for subsistence agriculture. They also often take responsibility for meeting the needs of the most vulnerable in society, such as orphaned children, the elderly and the disabled.

After the earthquake, these responsibilities have intensified, said Sarah Degnan Kambou, chief operating officer of the International Center for Research on Women in Washington, D.C.

"Women have already mobilized themselves in a hundred different ways--putting extra food in the pot . . . working in informal associations to provide for each other and their families," she said.


Kambou believes Haiti can draw lessons from Rwanda's reconstruction after the genocide in 1994. Rwanda's economy grew at a pace of over 11 percent in 2008, according to the World Bank, and has greatly expanded its health and education sectors since 1994. Fifty- six percent of parliamentarians in the country are women, according to the United Nations Fund for Women. Rwanda's 2003 constitution requires that at least 30 percent of parliamentary and cabinet seats go to women.

Mural recalling the January earthquake in Haiti.

After the genocide, women created institutions to reconstruct Rwanda and to prosecute perpetrators of the genocide. Rwanda was the first country to have a parliament where women outnumber men.

"There was still so much tension, but women were willing to sit down and struggle with how do we move forward," Kambou said. "They put aside deep, personal pain and fear. This is one of the reasons why Rwanda is so successful now. There is inclusion of women from the bottom-up, and it is built into the constitution and political leadership."

Worry Over Women's Needs

During a large donor conference in March, representatives from almost 140 countries came to the United Nations to raise over $5 billion for the country's reconstruction.

But across the street, advocates from international agencies and community organizations worried aloud that women's special needs were being left out.

"Women should not be an afterthought," said Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American writer, at the meeting. "We hope the reconstruction will have opportunities for women and girls at all levels. If we stay silent, too many voices will be left out of this conversation."

Women from the diaspora, such as 24-year-old Antoineta Beltifi, are also joining the effort to make Haiti better for women in the reconstruction process.

In New York City, Beltifi runs workshops for young and elderly Haitian women in the Beltifi Empowerment Committee, a local community organization. Since the earthquake, it has partnered with the nearby Haitian Cultural Exchange to aid traumatized children who have left Haiti after the earthquake by providing art therapy programs, such as theater and dance.

"The diaspora can start changing the lives of women abroad immediately," said Beltifi. "Women are at the center of this. And women need to take a firmer stance to rebuild from within themselves."

Charlot, from the Inter-Development American Bank, worries however about the odds facing resurgent women's rights activism.

"The earthquake and chaos that it has caused have propelled women and their issues to the forefront of Haiti's recovery and reconstruction debate," she said, but added that the country's woes may be too great for any movement, particularly one whose members are traumatized.

"I have friends--activists, professionals--who are still sleeping in their cars," she said.

Rebecca Harshbarger is a journalist based in New York and Kampala, Uganda. She started a media company called AfricaConnections that connects African immigrants with independent news from their homeland. The company's pilot news site recently launched at www.ugandansabroad.org. You can follow Rebecca on Twitter at www.twitter.com/rebeccaugust.


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