In my 30-plus years working in development, I have never witnessed worse devastation than the images I have seen since the Jan. 12 earthquake that left an estimated 200,000 people dead and millions more affected in Port-au-Prince and its surroundings.
Despite the many ongoing challenges that remain in providing relief, I am heartened by the immediate worldwide response. From individual Americans to world leaders, people have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. The U.S. government, other donors and international relief agencies are doing what they do best: responding with medical care, evacuation help, food and water. (If you are still looking for ways to help, the U.S. Agency for International Development has a number of suggestions.)
Though the earthquake did not discriminate based on gender, history tells us that women and girls will be disproportionately affected because of their higher rates of poverty, malnutrition and a number of social factors that leaves them more vulnerable. Reports of increased sexual violence against homeless women and girls in Port-au-Prince are a particular concern that must be addressed immediately.
As relief efforts shift from the immediate task of saving lives to providing food and shelter and eventually, to longer-term development, we should certainly have gender at the forefront of our minds. Here's why:
Women and girls faced enormous challenges before the earthquake. Haiti had the highest maternal mortality rate in the Western hemisphere, and too many women lacked access to health care. About 80 percent of Haiti's nine million people lived on roughly $1 a day before the earthquake, the majority of which were women and girls. Sexual violence was an ongoing problem. These challenges have all been exacerbated by the disaster.
Last week in Montreal, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined other nations to begin discussions on the long-term rebuilding of Haiti. As these talks continue, I urge leaders to focus on the special needs of women and girls. In doing so, they must invest in Haitian civil society. We must all remember that a strong Haitian civil society is essential to building a better future for its citizens.
The transition from relief to reconstruction to development must increasingly be led by Haitian institutions. To do that, we must help to rebuild - and in some cases build for the first time - Haitian capacity. One important part of this task is to invest in women's organizations. They can and should lead in building a new Haiti.
My organization, CEDPA, did not have recent programs in Haiti, but we do have several dozen Haitian alumni, some from our very first training programs thirty-five years ago. We are thinking of them and their families. We hope that they remain healthy and strong, and will lead in Haiti's future rebuilding. We will be reaching out in any way we can to help them do that.
I hope that in the months ahead, we will have good news to report on their efforts.