Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Building Back Better: A New Future for Haiti’s Women

Berlotte Israel and Margaret Satterthwaite
March 8th, 2010

Hundreds of thousands of Haitian families are sleeping on the streets of Port-au-Prince. Each night, women rock their babies to sleep, hush their children, and try to rest. Many nights, worries keep these women awake: the children are hungry; the rains are coming; the baby is sick.

In this broken city, women also fear violence. Husbands, brothers, and neighbors patrol the makeshift camps to protect them from strangers. But, for some women, the very men standing over them are the ones to fear: who can these women turn to for hope and protection?

Three women-Myriam Merlet, Anne Marie Coriolan, and Magalie Marcelin — could have provided the answer and some refuge. These women rights’ advocates created support services and fought on behalf of women facing domestic violence, rape, and exploitation. All three lost their lives in the earthquake. In their absence, we must carry on and provide hope through solidarity with the women of Haiti.

Solidarity must start today, International Women’s Day. It can begin with an effort to join forces across the gulf of experience to learn about each other’s lives. For Haitian women today, solidarity means seeking an end to the gender-based violence that can flourish in disasters. It also requires countering the structural violence of hunger, contaminated water, and unsafe housing — violence that was part of the daily lives of many Haitian women well before the earthquake struck.

Ensuring women’s immediate needs in these desperate days is not enough; women’s voices must also be heard for the long term. Government officials in Port-au-Prince, Washington, and donor countries around the world must ensure that women are empowered to change the future of their country. Empowering Haitian women now will mean better outcomes in the rebuilding efforts.

Today, women face enormous obstacles, especially when they have been raped or sexually harassed. Long treks to collect water often keep girls out of school and stymie their opportunities to escape poverty. Women die during pregnancy and labor at a rate far higher than anywhere else in the region. Plans for Haiti’s future should ensure access to justice for women who have suffered rape or sexual harassment. They should reduce the time women and girls spend collecting water each day by building accessible public water systems. Public health systems should be strengthened with the aim of improving maternal health. Healthy mothers translate into healthy families. And the right to education — protected in the Haitian constitution — should be made a reality for every little girl across Haiti. Educated women are drivers of sustainable development around the world.

For the women who lost their lives in the earthquake, for the women sleeping in the streets, and for the women who seek a brighter future, we must stand, side by side, and demand results. We, who live in wealthy countries like the United States, must demand that our governments keep their promises to the women of Haiti. Keeping these promises could help Haiti’s women change the future of their country, for good.

Berlotte Israel is Human Rights Advocacy Coordinator and Chair of the Survivors’ Advocacy Board at Dwa Fanm, a Haitian women’s organization in Brooklyn.

Margaret Satterthwaite is a Faculty Director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University School of Law.

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