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Double Victims: The Earthquake Through Haitian Women's Eyes

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Today marks three months since the earthquake that shook up the world. Private citizens and companies have been generous with their aid, giving over $2 billion; official donors have pledged $10 billion in the response. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who have been charged with the emergency aid and resettlement reconstruction generally have been slow to coordinate, share their information, and include the survivors and their grassroots organizations in the decisions and deliveries, as a recent report jointly authored by LAMP, BAI, IJDH, and HELP testified.

Women were already more marginalized before the earthquake. In the words of Edele, a feminist activist, "women are double victims. I mean, the justice system doesn't work for anyone. But women pay a double price." According to the Ministry of Women's Condition and Women's Rights, as of 2007, an estimated 59% of households in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area are headed by single women. This creates a situation common to many low-income communities and countries of "feminization of poverty."1 Women are thrust into the lowest-paying jobs such as on the factory lines. Men are disproportionately in supervisory positions in the same proportion. According to former Minister of Women's Condition Marie-Josselyn Lassègue, "Because women are the heads of household, women work hard on the line, doing everything she can to keep her job because she knows that if she loses it, many people can replace her. However, when decisions are made they take men as supervisors." In the informal sector of timachann, or street merchants, women's labor earns a third to a half less than men's. Women are more likely to sell foodstuffs whereas men sell more expensive electronics, hardware, and auto parts.

This gender disparity means that women were more likely to be in or around buildings that collapsed at the time of the earthquake, like Marie-Jeanne: "I was working, working, working, from 7 a.m. until just before 5 p.m. to meet the daily quota. I just barely left the factory in time when "the thing" happened (many people refuse to name it an earthquake, because they are still traumatized, like Marie-Jeanne herself). The earth shook and I was off balance. I fell to the ground. The concrete wall outside the factory came falling to the ground. I was trapped; the bricks fell on my legs. I couldn't move. Only after several minutes was someone able to help dig me out of the rubble." Luckily, Marie-Jeanne survived the quake, but she needs to walk on crutches, never to work on a factory floor again. Her co-worker Lunièse wasn't so lucky. She died before help could arrive.

Most people in Haiti estimate the official count of 230,000 dead to be far too low, since there are still many left unaccounted for. On top of this, a sizable number of people (women more than men) within Haiti's poor majority do not have any official state identification. Therefore, there is no way to estimate how many women died in the earthquake compared to men. Most of the missing are simply people who lie beneath too much rubble, 2-3 stories of a building or countless one-room shanties stacked on top of the hill. Also owing to gender, women are typically more likely to be inside the home, now buried under tons of concrete.

On top of this gender wage gap is the fact that, like almost everywhere in the world, women are given primary roles in raising families, a "second shift."2 Because of this, women are not as mobile as men, and because of this, donors have made policy decisions to favor women, for example in microcredit and food aid. Said a USAID employee, "you give money to a man and he's as likely to spend it on beer or a lover as on his family. But if you give to a woman, you're guaranteed that she will prioritize feeding herself and her children." Since the earthquake, donors and large NGOs have adopted the World Food Program's guidelines to give food aid exclusively to women, in a form of cards distributed beforehand.

The system of distributing cards - designed by large NGOs such as World Vision who is distributing most of the emergency aid in Port-au-Prince as an attempt to establish order and ensure fairness - is causing more problems than it is solving. First off is the question of management and supervision. In all five camps that I visited last week, resident leaders retold the same story of World Vision or International Migration Organization (OIM in the French acronym) selecting people to serve as a "comité de gestion" - a "management committee." When probed further none of these organizations, more than half of which had local ties before the earthquake, could explain the process. Several attempts to contact these top-down, "Astroturf" comités failed. Association leaders explained that the 2-3 members of the comité were not usually in the camps. In the five camps visited, not a single woman was selected by the large NGOs to comprise the comités.

These newly-minted leaders wield much power in their hands in the access to daily necessities they dole out. First and foremost is food, a burlap sack containing rice, beans, flour, and cooking oil. Many women like Solino resident Nathalie, a mother of three, argued that the people who get the cards are either moun pa, people's friends, or gwo ponyèt, people who can elbow their way through. "Women here can't compete with the more aggressive men." The men, to be sure, have to give the card to a woman in order to get the food, but that didn't stop a crowd of some 200 men, many of them on motorcycles, from waiting at the end of the line for their sisters or friends to come out, one particular distribution.

Malya Villard, a leader with KOFAVIV, argued that the practice of powerful men giving out cards leads too often to sexual harassment and even forced sex. "We have 3,000 members scattered across the camps. They keep in touch with us. Already we have heard over two dozen members tell us that they were forced to submit to sexual relations with the guy in exchange for the cards." Compounding this is another problem KOFAVIV and other women's organizations are confronting , the lack of public accountability. Said Villard's colleague Eramithe Delva, "No one comes by to check on us. There is no police presence, no NGO presence. True, whenever there's a foreign delegation or a journalist, government leaders have them walk around the perimeter of the camp, but they never step foot inside."

This lack of police presence also compounds the problem of sexual assault. Villard, who like Delva is staying in the camp in Champs-de-Mars, across from the destroyed National Palace along with some 35,000 other people, told, "not a single night goes by when you don't hear women crying for help." KOFAVIV acts as fast as they can to respond - taking rape victims to a doctor for a medical exam and then the police station - such as it is - to file a complaint. But KOFAVIV's resources are limited, and the lack of police presence makes their job more difficult. Adding fuel to the fire is the 3,000 people held at the National Penitentiary let out on January 12 just following the quake. Delva said, "Imagine, we worked so hard to bring rapists to justice - sometimes the process took 3 years - and now [the Police] let everyone out from prison. So now you have committed criminals walking around the camps. Some are looking for revenge. Most are simply trying to survive but all they know is the life of gangs." National radio reported that the area around the National Penitentiary has been all but taken over by former gang leaders, after the killings of 2 police officers last week.

There are other issues such as the lack of latrines, or people charging for use of latrines. Said Villard, "Imagine! Having to pay for a bathroom! Men can get away with one time per day, but we women! And who is in charge of the children?" Making matters worse is that, to date, not a single group has distributed tampons or sanitary napkins to the camps visited, despite it being three months since the earthquake. Said Murielle Dorismond, a leader within my neighborhood of Christ-Roi, "half of the population needs this! It's good that people are finally concerned about the public health concerns of human waste. But what about menstrual blood? Do we not count as people?" As primary caretakers, women bear the brunt of this public health disaster in the making, because women are the ones who pay for their children to go to the doctor, often sacrificing their own medical needs. Women's role in social reproduction also forces women to pay for their children's education, another dire concern for many as the school year is starting out again timidly. Predictably, schools for middle- and upper-class children are more likely to re-open, as is the case in Saint Louis de Gonzague. The vast majority are still without access to school. Said Thérèse, "it's women who bear the responsibility."

A coalition of women's organizations are arguing that for these reasons, it is imperative that women be included in the country's emergency response and rebuilding effort. MADRE has circulated a petition to this effort in advance of the March 31st donors conference. Giving women a space at the table and gender a time for consideration would mean that these basic human needs are given their full due. As mothers, women would ensure their children have sanitary housing, clean water, education, and basic health care. Implementing this of course would require donors and contracting NGOs to coordinate and democratize their efforts, having greater transparency and including local communities in their decisionmaking processes.

Mark Schuller is Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Anthropology at York College, the City University of New York. In addition to studying NGOs in Port-au-Prince since 2001, he is the co-director of Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy.

1. McLanahan, S. S., Sorensen, A., & Watson, D. (1989). Sex Differences in Poverty, 1950-1980. Signs, 15(1), 102-122.
2. Hochschild, A. R. (1989). The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home. New York: Viking.