Elda Vilmeney had a business selling Coca-Cola in bulk on Third Avenue in Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital. But the 7.0 earthquake destroyed much of Haiti in January 2010, and she hasn't been able to economically recover in the more than two years since the disaster.
“While I was inside my business, everything began to shake, and I had no idea what was happening,” Vilmeney says. “When I hurried to get outside, my foot turned and broke in several places. The American Marines operated on my foot and inserted metal pins, which will remain there until I die.”
With her business destroyed, she says her family suffered.
“For over a month, my children and I slept on the street,” she says. “We had great difficulty finding anything to eat.”
Today, she cooks and sells food on the roadside. She says that although it's been more than two years, she hasn't been able to re-establish her business. Instead, she and her husband are still seeking work in the informal sector.
“The earthquake destroyed my business with everything I had in it,” she says. “My husband gets little jobs from time to time, but what he brings in every month is hardly anything.”
She has four children – three boys and a girl.
“It is difficult for us to feed them, dress them and send them to school,” she says. “Jan. 12 really hurt us and left us a lot poorer than we already were. In Haiti, even when a person is able-bodied and not handicapped, it is still very hard to make a living to take care of my kids.”
Many women in Haiti say they lost their livelihoods in the 2010 earthquake. Two years later, these earthquake victims say they are still struggling to find employment in order to support themselves and their families. Nongovernmental organizations have offered special assistance to women, including microcredit schemes. The government has also prioritized women and offered them employment opportunities. Still, many women say they haven't been able to recover from losing their sources of income.
Each year, 250 million people worldwide become victims of natural disasters, according to a 2009 report by Oxfam International, an international confederation working to end poverty and injustice. By 2015, that estimate climbs to 375 million. Women are among the most vulnerable groups, according to the report.
Many women in Haiti face special challenges as the economic lungs of their families. Sixty percent of Haitian households are headed by women, according to a recent U.N. conference for university students in Haiti about responsible government.
In rural areas of Haiti, female-headed households are more likely to live in poverty than male-headed households, according to a World Bank report.
Marcelin Rose Danie and her family were also victims of the earthquake. They lived in the center of Port-au-Prince.
“The house that I lived in had four floors,” she says. “I lived on the second floor, and while I rushed to get out, I did not have time to get down the stairs because the stairs collapsed and the building came crashing down around me. I was left with nothing.”
She talks by candlelight, as she doesn't have electricity. A small child sleeps on her lap. Danie says that in addition to property, she also lost family members.
“My mother was killed because three floors of the house fell on her,” she says. “That is how she died. At first I was still able to talk to her, but there was so much debris she could not get out. Then she told me that the pain was getting to be too much, and after that she stopped talking.
he says they recovered her mother's body a few days later.
“Once they had removed all the rubble, we found the body of my mother,” she says. “It was Jan. 19 when we found her, and her body had not yet begun to decompose. We had a chance to bury her. Many families did not have that chance.”
She says her mother, a widow, was the economic backbone of her family.
“When my mother died, she left six children,” she says. “My father had died much earlier, and it was my mother who raised us. Now everything is much more difficult for us.”
She says her mother's business supported their family. Her mother sold rice, sugar and flour.
“While we are all adults, my mother used to help us out a lot with the small business she used to run,” she says. “I wish we had enough to live on.”
Danie says she and her family members must now find a new way to support themselves.
For some women, the only ways they can find to support themselves since the earthquake are less than ideal.
Before the earthquake, Christine was involved in small commerce, selling items in the market. But she lost this business in the earthquake. Her husband also died in the earthquake, leaving her on her own.
Today she admits she turned to sex work, saying it was the only way she could make ends meet after the earthquake. Christine declined to give her last name because of the social stigma attached to sex work here.
But despite this social stigma, she says many other women have resorted to sex work since the earthquake in order to support themselves and their families.
“Because it is women who keep the family together,” she says. “Even though they subsist on very little, they often have to prostitute themselves. They do so reluctantly, but they need money to pay the school fees for their children. They need to put food on the table. They need money for rent and also to take care of themselves and their children.”
A natural disaster has many victims.
“But women are hit the hardest,” says Altagras Benoit, another victim of the 2010 earthquake. “And until now, there is no plan in place that would protect women who are most vulnerable from the consequences of a natural disaster.”
As women continue to struggle more than two years after their livelihoods crumbled in the earthquake, local nongovernmental organizations have been doing their best to help.
Gregory Dussema, the administrator of the CARE office in Jérémie, a small town in southwestern Haiti, says that the international humanitarian organization has placed special emphasis on assisting women since the earthquake.
“CARE's mission is to help people who are marginalized, especially people who have become homeless due to a natural disaster,” he says. “After the January 2010 earthquake, CARE put a lot of emphasis on helping women.”
He says that CARE treats both women and men equally.
“Nonetheless, we give women special attention,” he says.
He attributes this to the special needs that women have after natural disasters.
“Their needs are different,” he says. “We distributed hygiene kits with Kotex, soap, toothpaste and all other items women need and use.”
CARE focuses on women in rural areas here.
“Most of our work here in Jérémie is done in the countryside,” he says. “We go by motorcycle and often spend the night because it is difficult to get to those faraway areas. But we talk to the women a lot and encourage them. We do this, despite the fact that the work is not easy.”
In addition to attending to women's basic needs, CARE has also implemented special programs to help female entrepreneurs.
“We also put a microcredit program together, and we see that 90 percent of the participants are women,” Dussema says. “And it is the women who administer the program themselves.”
Pierre Ronald Etienne, mayor of Jérémie, says that CARE and the government have both aimed to help families since the 2010 earthquake.
“After the earthquake, the mayor's office and CARE gave aid to 3,000 families for six months,” he says, smoking a cigarette. “We gave preference to women who had no husband.”
Smoke from his cigarette curls up into the air as he talks.
“At the level of the mayor's office, we gave a lot of aid, especially to women who lost their husbands in the earthquake,” he says. “We paid the school fees for a lot of children, which gave the mothers peace of mind. I cannot give you exact figures, but we paid for many.”
He says the government also offered employment opportunities to women who lost their businesses in the earthquake.
“In addition, we also gave a number of women work,” he says. “We employed three women in the mayor's office and employed 15 women as street sweepers. Other[s] we helped out with some stipends.”
He says that women thrive in the working world when given the opportunity.
“We like employing women because they take work seriously and work well,” he says.