Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Making Haiti Safe for Women Through the Light of a Lamp

By Ruth Messinger, Huffington Post

Five months after the earthquake, security in Haiti’s refugee camps remains dire. In some camps, gangs and opportunists have hijacked the aid distribution system, charging high prices for food or demanding sex in exchange for access to aid.

As the New York Times recently reported more than a million Haitians are homeless, without adequate food, shelter or health supplies. Gender-based violence and sexual abuse are widespread, and girls and women avoid using toilets for fear of being assaulted. Cite Soleil, one of Haiti’s most infamous slums, is a breeding ground for many of these injustices. Less than 28 percent of Cite Soleil’s inhabitants have received aid from relief organizations; more than 50 percent of Cite Soleil inhabitants do not feel safe at night; and 20 percent of all violent incidents since the earthquake have been rapes.

Despite these enduring hardships, I am reminded that there are, in fact, stories of positive change — stories that often go unreported by mainstream media. Here’s one:

With support from American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an organization called EarthSpark has been supplying thousands of solar lamps to Cite Soleil, which has been virtually ignored by international aid efforts. EarthSpark is working to increase public safety in the camps, prioritizing lamp distribution to women who are most vulnerable at night. Using its local knowledge and networks, including AJWS’s grantees Fonkoze, Konbit Pou Ayiti and Partners in Health, EarthSpark has distributed over 3,000 lamps to the most marginalized Haitian refugee camp communities.

One of the unforeseen and inspiring benefits of EarthSpark’s lamp distribution has been a grassroots organizing effort by and for women. Women are now forming safety patrols at night with their lamps, acting as escorts for other women and creating lit pathways to public latrines and washing areas.

Of course, this is not a story we’d expect to see in the New York Times headlines; nor is it likely to be heard or read by the vast majority of international aid organizations. But it’s important to realize that this story reflects a shift in social power that has the potential to transform an entire country; it reveals the strength and effectiveness of grassroots organizing in conditions where few would think such an effort was even possible.

When we invest in building a future for Haiti, we must not only think about supplies, money and infrastructure, but about how to harness the power and creative energy of Haitian people–particularly Haitian women. The key to Haiti’s future depends on empowering women and girls, involving them in decision-making processes that go far beyond self-appointed safety patrolling in camps. We must take cues from Haitian women on how to effect radical social change, and then we must lead by their example.

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