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.

Female-Friendly Kits Distributed

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.

Transistor Radios Instrumental in Crisis

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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