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Lighting the Future for Haiti's Women

January 30, 2011

Kathy Calvin
CEO, United Nations Foundation

A version of this article was first published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on January 16, 2011.

In the long list of challenges facing Haiti, going to the restroom shouldn’t be one of them. Yet, in Haiti’s sprawling tent cities, something as simple as a lighted pathway to the latrine can make a huge difference for a woman trying to survive the night without fear of sexual violence.

Even before last year’s earthquake, Haiti was one of the most difficult places in the Western Hemisphere to be a woman. Nowhere in Latin America, North America, or the Caribbean are the maternal mortality rates higher, literacy rates lower, and life expectancy shorter than for women in Haiti.

Yet, even in this most desperate situation, there is reason for hope. Relatively simple actions can go a long way toward improving the safety and welfare of women living in temporary tent cities. One of the most common requests from camp residents is for lighting. They need lighting so that women and young girls can feel safer when walking to the latrines at the edges of the camps at night. Dark, unsafe conditions embolden predators who take advantage of women. That is why the United Nations, the UN Foundation, and other partners are distributing solar-powered lights to camps — and letting camp women decide where they should be placed. In some of the larger camps, rapes are almost a daily occurrence.

 A number of reports also indicate that teenage pregnancy is on a sharp rise in these camps. Haiti’s birthrate (which was already high prior to the earthquake) has tripled since January 2010, from 4% to 12%. The lack of access to reproductive health services, education, and medical care makes pregnancy dangerous — particularly for young girls. There were about 200 nurse midwives in Haiti before the earthquake; now there are about 75. Several clinics were destroyed in the earthquake. Today, women are literally giving birth on the sidewalks.

The current wave of teenage pregnancies must be accompanied by measures to promote maternal health and bring reproductive health services to these camps. Without proper access to reproductive health services and education for the hundreds of thousands of women in tent cities, rates of sexually transmitted diseases can only be expected to rise.

The U.N. is at the forefront of an effort to restore clinics, train midwives, distribute contraception, and provide reproductive and health education to adolescent girls surviving in difficult circumstances.

To date, the U.N. Population Fund has distributed 25,000 “dignity kits” which include items such as sanitary napkins, anti-bacterial soap, underwear, towels, and washing supplies. They have even commandeered two “Tap Tap” trucks — the elaborately decorated buses that are ubiquitous in Port au Prince — to deliver important information about sexual health. Local youth leaders travel from camp to camp on these trucks to educate young people about reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, and family planning.

This peer education program has seen successes. But with only two trucks and a handful of staff, there is no way it can reach several hundred thousand young women in the camps. These efforts must be expanded and supported by the international community. Part of the problem is simply lack of funding. A United Nations emergency appeal for its Haiti earthquake response is still over $400 million short of its target. This means that critical interventions for women and girls are being missed. Those programs that are working are not able to grow to scale.

Women and girls must be at the top of the international community’s agenda for Haiti. An estimated 43% of households in Haiti were headed by women. It is critically important that, as Haiti rebuilds and people move from tent cities to more permanent dwellings, we support employment opportunities for women and provide educational opportunities for girls.

While the circumstances are dire for women and girls in Haiti, there are brave and resourceful women who are finding ways to survive and thrive. A brighter future is possible by improving the health and welfare of Haiti’s most vulnerable. First and foremost, that means protecting women and girls in Haiti’s tent cities. Together, we can help the next generation of Haiti’s women build back better than before.

This article appears in the Winter 2011 edition of Global Insights. Read the rest of the issue here.