Together with new homes Haitian women build new rights – Maarten Rabaey

Less than a day after the devastating earthquake that flattened the country, Haitian women were already working to feed their families and geared up to rebuild their country. They need all our support to ensure their fundamental rights for this daunting task. ‘Empowering women is crucial in shaping this country’s future’, the UNDP warns.

She was driving the bulldozer on her own. All of the sudden she stopped next to a pile of rubble. With the digger she slowly started to move the debris. She was searching for deceased children in what was once a school. Around 97% of schools were destroyed in Port-au-Prince during the January 12th earthquake. This is the starkest image that symbolises the courage of Haitian women. But courage is an understatement.

I remember I said ‘bon courage’ a few days later, saying goodbye to the female doctor Paulienna, coordinating relief work at an inner courtyard with dozens of patients with broken, bruised and mutilated limbs, as she said: ‘courage, I have no courage. My son died. He was alive after the quake. For four days they tried to free him. Bit by bit the bulldozer moved the concrete that struck him. Until all of a sudden it collapsed and crushed his chest. No, I don’t have courage anymore. But I try to give courage to others by helping other children survive. For now, it is the only thing I have left in my life.”

Or take Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue, Haiti’s Minister of Culture and Communications. In the garden of a ramshackle police-station – the temporary HQ of the Haitian government – she kept two notebooks. One was with statistics to brief the press on relief effort, the other was to write down the tally of her own deceased or missing family members. That number was 18, but she mentioned it motionless, as it was almost futile to the other numbers she just gave: an estimated 212 000 people dead, tens of thousands wounded, thousands of amputees, another 1.3 million homeless… Two months after the quake, and with the rainy season soon upon them, the relief effort is still an emergency.

Women are at the centre of this emergency. Of the country’s 10 million inhabitants, 52% are women – 42 % are below the age of 15. Today, over 40% are single parent families; the majority led by a woman. So women are also in the centre of rebuilding the country, and carving out their rights.

Minister of Women’s Affairs Marjory Michel, together with Jocelyn-Lassègue the only women next to 16 men in the Haitian cabinet, recently stressed the importance of involving women in reconstructing the country, “not as passive aid recipients but as key players in the process”.

Michel made her declarations referring to the cash-for-work-schemes of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), of which around 40% of the workers currently employed are women. The initiative helps to jumpstart the local economy, providing short-term jobs to Haitians to clear rubble and rehabilitate essential social infrastructures, such as street repairs and electricity.

“Programmes like the UNDP’s cash-for-work are important because they ensure women’s involvement, employing them and thus giving many heads of households the necessary income to sustain their families”, Michel said.

Another example is that the World Food Program (WFP) only distributes food aid to Haitian women, because they manage the distribution in a more orderly way than the men.

But Haitian women will need our support to have equal rights too.

Although nearly 50% of Haitian women are economically active – the highest percentage in Latin America and the Caribbean – the majority of women are employed in the informal sector. Income disparities are striking: women earn less than half of men’s wages. They lack equal representation in politics. According to the UNDP only 5% of deputies are women. Of all of the 135 Haitian parliamentary seats, only eight are occupied by women. In contrast, the average rate of women in the lower house of parliament in Latin America and the Caribbean is over 20% (among the highest rates in the world).

The social indicators do not look good either. Although Haiti has the highest fertility rate in the region, 4.8 children per woman (between the ages of 15 and 49), the country also has the highest maternal mortality rate in the region: 670 deaths for every 100,000 babies born. Child labour, particularly among girls, is a severe problem. According to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, 100% of Haitian girls between the ages 5 and 9 work in the informal market. Nearly half of all children are not enrolled in schools. Hence, almost 60% of women cannot read or write. Early marriage is also common. Under Haitian law, the minimum legal age for marriage is 15 years for women and 18 years for men.

Once in marriage, women are prone to violence. World Bank figures estimate that 70% of Haitian women have been affected by some kind of violence, either in domestic or public. These figures have increased in the past years, according to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights.

The government took the commitment to prevent, punish and eradicate acts of discrimination and violence against women. In 2005 rape was made a criminal offence. But the Haitian Constitution still does not prohibit sexual discrimination. The country lacks specific laws against domestic violence and the majority of the cases of abuse are not reported to the authorities. Furthermore, many reported cases lack proper investigation and processing, which generates a pattern of impunity.

Prior to the earthquake, Haitian activists like Anne-Marie Coriolan, Myriam Merlais and Magalie Marcelin advocated reform of the judiciary and an infrastructure that would protect women and girls against violence. But all three of them died in the quake. We owe our support to their legacy, to the bulldozer-woman, to doctor Paulienna, to the female ministers, but mainly to the hundreds of thousands of anonymous, women now working hard to clear the rubble of their ruined lives, “Empowering women is crucial to shape the country’s future”, the UNDP recently stated. “The challenge now is to spearhead policies that address women’s needs, building a new country where women, men, girls and boys share equal rights and opportunities.”

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