Minouche lost her home and husband in January's devastating earthquake in Haiti. I met her last week in Bel Air, a vast and congested shantytown of makeshift tents and shacks now home to nearly 4,000 people, including Minouche and her six children. Not far from where we were standing, a heated argument ensued between members of the "zone committee" and several young thugs in shades, who, in spite of the surrounding filth, were sporting spotless white T-shirts and high-top sneakers. The men were sparring over where a row of latrines and bathing stations should be built. Minouche and a throng of other female onlookers were growing increasingly distressed. "I don't care where they go," one exasperated woman told me. "We just need a place where we can wash and go to the bathroom."
When the earthquake hit, survivors scrambled to find a place to live and soon settlements for Haiti's homeless sprouted in every available nook of Port-au-Prince. Tens of thousands of women and girls suddenly found themselves packed into crowded, poorly lit and unsafe camps, living next to strangers, struggling to cover themselves while bathing and going to the bathroom in public, desperately needing simple hygiene and household supplies and the money to buy them, and lacking the basic protection and privacy that a home provides.
Walking through these settlements, you also can't help but notice how many women are alone. Some were likely single moms before the earthquake. But many have probably been widowed or separated from male family members by the chaos of the situation. They tend to keep to their dwellings to care for their families and are too often overlooked or miss out on distributions of food and supplies.
My colleague Robyn Yaker (left), who is spearheading the International Rescue Committee's programs to increase aid and security for women and girls in Haiti, tells me that in a disaster like this, women and girls are uniquely affected. "They're exposed and that makes them more susceptible to sexual violence, and they have a harder time accessing supplies, which puts them at risk of exploitation when they try to get them."
This why the IRC is putting women and girls at the center of its relief efforts in Haiti, to ensure that vulnerable women like Minouche feel safer, have a voice in the design and placement of latrines, showers and other facilities they want and need, and have access to vital information, supplies, and other services, including psychological and clinical care for survivors of violence. "They have a right to live their lives in a dignified way, regardless of their circumstances," Robyn says.
Kay Famn, a Haitian women's organization, is struggling to recover from the earthquake in January, which laid waste to the group's office, a center for counseling, education and other programs, and a shelter for sexually abused teenage girls. The IRC provided this tent and others so that Kay Famn had a place to restart services and that the young women and their children have a safe place to live. Robyn tells me that many women's organization's that provided support and protection to women and girls have been severely weakened as many lives were lost, including several prominent women's leaders. She says the IRC will be lending support to these groups in the long-term so that survivors can access the health, safety, psychological, legal and economic support that they need.
Villembetta camp is perched high on a hill in Petionville, exposed to the elements like no other camp I've seen. It's sure to take a battering when the storms come and it's hard to imagine that residents will be able to stay. Still, we're delivering much needed aid to the people there for as long as they stay. Here, the IRC's Evelyne Cesar and Joseph Jean go tent to tent, surveying each household to identify women in need of health and hygiene supplies. They meticulously take down names and ages to register women for an IRC distribution, which will take place later in the day. Evelyne and Joseph will make sure that the supplies are placed directly in the hands of these women.
On this day, Milaine Alexandre and others on the IRC team lifted the spirits of more than 500 women. They gave the women of Villembeta solar-powered lights, new underwear and a fantastic kit donated by our partner, the UN Population Fund. Packaged in a large bucket that can be used for washing or carrying water, the kits included sanitary napkins, soap, wash clothes, toothpaste, toothbrushes and laundry detergent.
At a site called Kawoussel, IRC environmental health coordinator Melody Munz recruits women residents to be part of a health and hygiene promotion team. As the traditional caretakers of children and their families, Melody says that they're best placed to lead behavioral changes that are that are essential to improving the health of their families.
The IRC's cash-for-work programs are initially focusing on public health needs, including latrine construction, drain cleaning and waste removal. We're ensuring that women have equal access to these and all employment programs and that they are not based on traditional gender roles. This woman was energetically carrying large wooden planks used for latrine flooring to a field at Kawoussel, before she sweetly posed for a picture with a set of saws, provided by the IRC.
The IRC has also taken a leading role in mapping Haiti's marketplace since the earthquake -- analyzing the current supply of key commodities, like beans and rice, as well as labor trends, in order to design better economic recovery programs. This will have a huge impact on restoring livelihoods for Haitian women, who had a major role as traders and sellers.
"Women have a huge role to play in the rebuilding of Haiti," says Aisha Bain (right), IRC deputy director of programs in Haiti. "We want to make sure that they benefit from it and have an equal voice in Haiti's recovery."
To find out more about the International Rescue Committee's work in Haiti, and to support their work, please go to www.theirc.org/crisis-haiti.