22 July 2010

Six Months On, the Women of Haiti Fight Back

Last week marked the sixth-month anniversary of the Haitian earthquake, where more than a million people struggle to scratch a life out of the ruins of the capital city. With that anniversary came a slight uptick in the number of stories aimed at giving voice to the reality of life on the ground in Haiti -- but, much as we saw with Hurricane Katrina, now that the milestone has passed, the news cycle has moved on, leaving behind it millions of disenfranchised Haitians, still struggling to rebuild their homes, their schools, their lives.

Of particular note during these months of chaos has been the role women have played in this terrible story and the human drama that has rolled out on top of them. Just after the earthquake, the Ms. Foundation authorized emergency grants to four organizations working in the region -- the Global Fund for Women, Partners in Health, Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (Haitian Women in Miami), and Dwa Fanm (Women's Rights)-- because we knew two things: 1) that the women and children of Haiti would be disproportionately affected by the impact of the disaster, and 2) that these organizations were among the most trusted groups on the ground to begin delivering aid where it was needed.

Tragically, that support has been every bit as required as we imagined, and then some. Six months on, the people of Port-Au-Prince are still living a nightmare -- and no groups more so than the women and children, who are experiencing what may be record levels of physical and sexual violence, both in the makeshift camps they call home and elsewhere around the city.

Sexual and domestic violence is not a new phenomenon in Haiti. As Taina Bien-Aime, Executive Director of Equality Now and the daughter of Haitian immigrants, noted in the days just after the quake, local estimates prior to the disaster suggested that 72% of Haitian girls had been raped and at least 40% of women were victims of domestic violence. Unbelievably, those numbers are now likely on the rise.

"When the guys don't have no money, their brain is not good," a leader in one of the camps told CNN in March. "When they have no work or food and just sit around, it is bad. When a guy is drunk, he will do anything [to a woman]."

Women around Port-Au-Prince are seeing the truth in those remarks every day. Though it is difficult to find comprehensive statistics, scan just a few articles written in the past few months on Haiti, women and violence and you will find reports of multiple gang rapes at many of the camps. 4 here. 2 there. 20 across the city. All in just a few days time.

How many times can we say it? This is not a new story. It's the story we heard in New Orleans after the Hurricanes. It's the story we hear on Indian reservations all the time. It is the particular and predictable result of systemic disenfranchisement come to a head, with women ultimately paying the price for the rage that so much disappointment engenders -- with either their bodies or their lives.

Despite the real dangers they face, the women of Haiti are fighting back, organizing to protect their own safety: they are distributing rape whistles in the camps, and setting up committees to address the needs of women when no one else will. They are standing in where pre-existing services (like rape crisis centers) have been destroyed. And they are finding ways to lift themselves and their families out of poverty by training for non-traditional jobs in industries like construction, which are slowly opening up to women workers.

Their fortitude and faith are the stuff revolutions are made of. As they rebuild their nation and seek to protect the voiceless from the violence that has plagued them for so long, we stand in solidarity with the women of Haiti -- today, tomorrow, and on all the other days when the media and the rest of the world have forgotten they exist.

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