This time, let’s get disaster aid right for women in Haiti

Women left destitute after Hurricane Matthew bathe and clean clothes in a river cutting through Roche-a-Bateau.
Women left destitute after Hurricane Matthew bathe and clean clothes in a river cutting through Roche-a-Bateau. Miami Herald

Haiti faces yet another humanitarian crisis, this time after Hurricane Matthew has left more than 175,000 Haitians without homes and 1.4 million in need of disaster relief assistance.

The small island-nation has had more than its share of natural disasters: Less than six years ago, it was devastated by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake.

Aid organizations providing humanitarian assistance in Haiti today should heed the lessons learned from the earthquake response in 2010. This includes addressing the critical needs of vulnerable populations, especially women, who are disproportionately affected and increasingly vulnerable after natural disasters.

Haiti was thrown into chaos in January 2010 when an earthquake struck, killing over 220,000 people and shattering infrastructure. Immediately following the earthquake, 1.3 million people were relocated to temporary shelters in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area.

Humanitarian organizations, both local and international, sprang into action to address the immediate needs of the affected population. As the response took form, it became clear that women were disproportionately affected by the disruption of the community structures upon which they depended. Rates of sexual assault increased rapidly. Moreover, many women, the backbone of the informal economy, struggled financially when markets were shut down.

Following the 2010 earthquake, the international community largely overlooked women’s specific needs and struggled to incorporate women’s voices in their humanitarian response in Haiti.

Many humanitarian aid agencies had policies that referenced women’s vulnerabilities and capabilities and had procedures that called for women to be involved in decision-making processes. But when it came time to act on their policies, many of these guidelines were not implemented amidst the chaos and destruction.

Multiple organizations, for example, had policies regulating the mapping of latrines and lighting in camps to prevent gender-based violence. But these were not always implemented effectively. Providing adequate lighting in camps, mapping gender-based violence service providers, creating mixed-gender patrols in camps, and planning for safety around food distribution all proved to be a challenge in the aftermath of the earthquake, despite being critical to protecting women.

Gender-based violence was common in the camps in 2010. Data collected from four camps revealed that 14 percent of the respondents said that after the earthquake, one or more members of their household, mostly women, had experienced sexual violence.

Prior to the earthquake, many Haitian women sustained local markets and food production. When the earthquake hit, they lost all assets and did not have access to credit to restart their small enterprises. Communities suffered as a result, losing one of their primary sources for food. Many women fell into debt, and to feed themselves and their families, they went to extreme measures, even trading sex for food or money to buy cooking fuel.

Economic opportunities were largely a secondary focus of aid agencies in 2010. Yet economic empowerment and rebuilding of markets are vital for real recovery, especially for women and the communities they support, and can help to build capacity and resilience.

To be sure, humanitarian relief and recovery organizations have taken steps over the past six years to improve gender-responsive policies and their implementation, in line with the global trend of increasing focus on institutionalizing women’s needs.

As they engage in recovery efforts in Haiti following Hurricane Matthew, it is essential that their gender focus is central, not marginal to their operations.

▪ Accountability mechanisms ensuring that program implementation and evaluation are indeed gender responsive should be established and observed.

▪ Aid groups should train and expect their field operations to include women’s needs, abilities, and perspectives into their programming on a daily basis. Further, implementing partner organizations should also be required to follow gender mainstreaming guidelines.

▪ To ensure effective outcomes, organizations should allocate staff and resources for gender-responsive programs and evaluation of outcomes, including collecting sex- disaggregated data. And when large humanitarian organizations work together, it is imperative that they coordinate data collection, program management, and evaluation in a manner that is effective and gender-responsive.

The humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake has taught us the importance of a gender-responsive approach to natural disasters. As aid agencies help Haitians to rebuild their country after Hurricane Matthew, a critical “lesson learned” is to consider the specific ways in which Haitian women have been affected by the hurricane, and include their voices and agency in this recovery process. This is not an option but a necessity for building stronger and more resilient communities in Haiti.

Melanne Verveer is the executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS) and former U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues.