Problems and Solutions: How the 2010 Earthquake Has Disproportionately Impacted Women

Two years ago when a devastating earthquake struck Haiti, nearly everyone there suffered for it.  In the two years of recovery efforts since then, women continue to suffer.  Although health issues such as cholera and poor housing conditions impact many of the half million people living in camps for internally displaced persons (IDP), women are also becoming victims of gender-based violence, made worse by the poor living conditions and lack of adequate lighting.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, and in efforts to rebuild, reports found that gender-based violence against women was being seriously underreported. This means that the problem is worse than officials had estimated. There are many reasons for the surge in violence against women.  Part of the reason is because of shortfalls in the amounts of money promised by donors in the initial wake of the earthquake.  This shortfall in funding has prevented people from being moved out of camps and into homes as anticipated.  It is also perpetuated by the disruption of work by local authorities, who now have weakened abilities and resources to seek out and prosecute offenders.

Several efforts have been implemented in order to prevent these instances of violence against women.  A truly simple but effective measure has been to improve lighting conditions in the interim camps.  Multiple parties are involved in this initiative.  For example, the UNFPA has recently installed hundreds of solar-powered street lamps, with plans to continue installing more.  These lamps are playing a role in making women feel safer while walking within their camps.  The added benefit of these lights, beyond reducing violence against women, is the additional opportunity for commerce during later hours of the day, as well as a source of light for people living without electricity.

Another project that falls in line with this idea of increased lighting is the one being carried out by International Organization on Migration (IOM). This goal of this project is to put solar powered flashlights into the hands of young people and women.  After completing a thorough assessment and examining the needs of some of the recovery camps’ most vulnerable people, IOM, in conjunction with other parties, found that the need for better lighting was one intervention that would help.

The capital for these projects came from donors, but it is laudable that both the lamps and the flashlights rely on the sun, a sustainable energy source.  This is a simple, helpful, and cost-effective solution to a serious problem.  There are other experiences and benefits to increased lighting.  For example, at Lifeline Energy, there have been multiple accounts of the benefits that solar light sources have brought women in other countries, included decreased discrimination, safer air quality, and reduced chances of fires. Increasing light sources has been a strategy implemented by UNICEF, UN-HABITAT, and UN Women in several cities worldwide, along with other proposed strategies.

Moving forward, the government of Haiti would do well to continue to incorporate a gender justice unit in its police force.  Because gender-based violence has already been reported at high rates in Haiti in the past, this is really just a problem which has been made worse by the tragedy and confusion of the earthquake disaster.  In the years before the earthquake, Haiti’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs began the process for improving outcomes in gender-based violence.  For example, legal reforms were in place to consider the rape of women more serious than a moral offense, and to also carry more serious consequences. Unfortunately, the earthquake which brought down government buildings has also impeded the progress of many government initiatives and ministries.  However, two years after the quake, a new bill is to be introduced which would put stronger measures in place to fight violence against women, in the camps, in the workplace, and in the home.

Of course, several other initiatives have been started to try to prevent and punish sexual violence against women after the earthquake.  For example, the number of camp patrols has been strengthened; There are now nearly 9,000 UN Peacekeepers, more than 1,200 UN Police force members, and over 2,300 police officers from formed police units. Additionally, efforts are being put forward to restore trust and invite people to speak out. This effort has been supported by the creation of a gender justice unit within the UN police force.

The scale of damage that Haiti experienced from the earthquake was incredibly destructive.  As such, there are few examples to draw upon for best practices and lessons learned regarding gender and disaster relief efforts.  One report on disaster management in the Philippines explains that there are several categories and sub-categories of gender-based issues before and after a natural disaster strikes, as well as during the period of disaster management. The report, published by APEC in 2009, almost a year before the Haiti earthquake, describes cultural and other factors that might determine why women are often victimized pre- and post-natural disaster, as well as during recovery efforts.  USAID has acknowledged the necessity to better address GBV in disaster relief efforts, and also conducted training sessions on the issue, including case studies from Guatemala and Zambia. Many of these best practices and lessons learned depend on certain infrastructures (radio, religious institutions, government programs or ministries), and thus the event in Haiti may not have benefited from all of them.  Many other suggestions include incorporating a gender-component into the local police forces, and providing greater awareness of GBV to reduce the associated stigma. Haiti seems to be applying this practice in the IDP camps. No doubt, there are countless lessons learned from the recovery efforts in Haiti, which will undoubtedly benefit future victims of natural disasters.

To learn more about the progress of UNFPA’s efforts in Haiti, click here



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