Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Protecting Women's Rights in the Reconstruction of Haiti

It is easy to forget, what with the millions of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, with scores of ethnic Uzbeks being killed in Kyrgyzstan, and with the blocking of vital aid to Gaza , that the humanitarian crisis sparked by January's earthquake in Haiti rages on.
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.


Amy Senier said...

See also the front page of today's NY Times for coverage of this topic (

Marjorie Florestal said...


Thank you for focusing attention on Haiti; as you point out, the merciless onward push of the Western news cycle makes it all too easy to forget that Haiti's challenges are only just beginning. For too long, the plight of Haitian women in particular has been ignored; NGOs as well as govts are becoming much more savvy in incorporating women's issues in a holistic development agenda. We need to force that focus because Haitian culture all too often regulates women and women's roles to the back burner. Great post.

Blaine said...

To read more about violence against women in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake and legal responses, you can read about the Haiti Rape Accountability and Prevention Project of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and our Haiti-based affiliate, the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) at

IJDH and BAI have 15 years experience fighting for the rights of Haiti's poor. We are working with KOFAVIV and five other grassroots women's groups to respond to the epidemic of rapes in Haiti's displacement camps.

Take action and sign a petition demanding better security at

Sign up for the Lawyers' Earthquake Response Network coordinated by IJDH, at, to get involved in projects providing legal assistance to earthquake victims using a human-rights based approach.