Last week marked the second anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, which brought massive destruction and loss of life and resulted in the initial displacement of more than 2 million people. Even before the earthquake, life was often harrowing for impoverished women and girls, and this remains true today. On this anniversary, I cannot get out of my mind a comment a Haitian woman made to my Women’s Refugee Commission colleagues who visited the country in the months after the quake: “Everything got worse, especially for us women.”
Two years after disaster struck, it is hard to say that anything has gotten better for the Haitian women and girls who remain displaced. There are still more than 500,000 people living as refugees inside their own country. Imagine living with your family for two years in a flimsy tent, in an overcrowded camp that isn’t safe and where the basic necessities—food, water, sanitation—are in short supply. That’s the everyday reality for many Haitians. For women and girls, there are the added dangers of rape and sexual exploitation, with insufficient medical and mental health services for survivors and little hope that their perpetrators will be brought to justice.
In any humanitarian emergency, when people don’t have enough to eat and don’t have access to the most basic services, they become desperate. For women and girls this can mean turning to transactional sex to provide for themselves and their families. This is, unfortunately, what is happening to an alarming extent in Haiti. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released a devastating report last May revealing how prevalent this practice is in the camps, stating, “Transactional sex appears to be a common method for women to feed their families in the absence of gainful employment, informal income generation activity or free access to any type of aid distribution.”
As the country rebuilds, there are many steps that need to be taken to ensure that women and girls are safe and enjoy equal opportunities for education, employment and leadership. Certainly, well-funded and properly designed skills-training and livelihood programs for women and girls must be a top priority.
The Women’s Refugee Commission has been working on the issue of developing safe and effective economic opportunities for women and girls for several years. Time and time again—in multiple humanitarian emergencies—we have seen that livelihood programs are either under-prioritized or poorly designed. And we have documented many cases where the livelihood options that women are pursuing actually increase their risk of violence. This happens, for example, when women hawk goods on unsafe streets or have no safe routes from home to work. To help the humanitarian community create stronger livelihoods programs that also reduce the risk of gender-based violence, the Women’s Refugee Commission recently released tools and guidance on how to do this most effectively.
There has been much inspiring rhetoric about building Haiti back better. To make this rhetoric a reality for women and girls, Haiti and its international partners need to renew their commitment to fully integrating gender and protection considerations into all rebuilding efforts. This renewed commitment must be accompanied by increased, targeted resources, and women and girls must be equal partners in designing and carrying out programs.
Building Haiti back better for women and girls will also require better security inside and outside the camps, an effective justice system, and readily available reproductive health and mental health services. And it will require much greater access to education and economic programs that provide women and girls with a safe way to earn a living, care for their families and realize their potential. It’s not only about their security and well-being; it’s also about the kind of future Haiti will have.