Of the hundreds of thousands enduring an epic lack of food, shelter, and medical care, Haitian women and girls remain among the most vulnerable in the aftermath of that natural disaster. (credit for May 19, 2010, photo, © UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0779/LeMoyne, of mother who's just had her daughter vaccinated at health centre in Haiti)
The lack of security on Port-au-Prince's streets and temporary camps, all of which host thousands who have been rendered homeless, has catapulted the rate of violence against women in Haiti. Already endemic before the earthquake, the rate has reached new highs. Prior to the earthquake, violence against women in Haiti was described as "widespread" and "alarming." Over 90 percent of Haitian women were estimated to have experienced gender-based violence at some point in their lives.
The insecurity following the January 12 earthquake has not only exacerbated that state of affairs but presented an opportunity for change as well. Governments, donors, and international organizations -- if not the global citizenry -- are providing humanitarian assistance to the tiny Caribbean nation as it struggles to rebuild its homes, schools, and roads. In addition to the bricks and mortar work being done, development agencies have observed the need to rebuild Haiti's justice and security systems.
No one appreciates the absence of rule of law in Haiti better than its women, who have long struggled to access health care services, police investigations, prosecutions, and enforceable sentences against their aggressors.
On June 7, one of those women, Malya Villard-Apollon, testified before the U.N. Human Rights Council. Villard-Apollon is a member of KOFAVIV, a grassroots organization that has worked with victims of sexual violence in Haiti for six years. Since the earthquake, KOFAVIV has recorded 242 cases of rape but has yet to see a single prosecution. Villard-Apollon urged the Council to take action, saying:
Although violence against women is common, rape survivors like myself refuse to believe that it cannot be stopped and neither should the members of the Council.
She cited a lack of education and security as reasons for the alarming rates of violence against women, as well as "ineffective" aid distribution and aid agencies' failure to consult with local organizations. Villard-Apollon reminded donors of the United Nations' Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, and urged aid providers to consult with Haitian women in the delivery of aid. Principle 18 of the Guiding Principles calls specifically for the involvement of displaced women in the distribution of water, food, shelter, and medical care.
The importance of consulting with women in Haiti's reconstruction was echoed by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in her June 11 report on human rights during the rebuilding of Haiti.
Involving women in the reconstruction of Haiti does not simply satisfy international legal obligations, it also makes good development sense. Participatory development has been a buzzword in the field of international aid since the 1990s, when development agencies began shifting away from top-down programming to more bottom-up initiatives. Since this time, many aid organizations have been working with grassroots groups to set the development agendas for their own communities, understanding that such involvement leads not only to project ownership but also to initiatives that are more tailored to participating communities and ultimately, to more sustainable outcomes.
This development philosophy, together the international legal principles prescribing participation of women in humanitarian relief, may translate into reconstruction efforts in Haiti that will not only stem the current crisis of gender-based violence but also prevent its recurrence in the future.