When a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, 2010 – killing more than 200,000 people and leaving some 1.5 million homeless – the International Rescue Committee immediately dispatched our emergency team to help.
Working in camps that sprang up to house quake survivors, we recruited dozens of Haitian staff and launched programs to meet urgent needs – including uniting separated children with their families, distributing emergency relief, and providing health care, clean water and sanitation.
The Haitian people had many problems before the earthquake struck, including staggering poverty, unemployment, and social and economic inequities. For those who survived the earthquake, these problems were only exacerbated.
As Haitians recover and rebuild, the IRC continues to work in camps and neighborhoods, assisting those who are struggling to get by.
We asked the IRC's country director in Haiti, Miriam Castaneda, to speak to some of the most challenging issues facing Haitians today. Here she focuses on women's ongoing struggles with sexual violence and poverty:
Q. What are the greatest challenges facing women and girls in Haiti today? What is being done to help?
A. The situation of women and girls has deteriorated since the earthquake. This is a country where the power imbalance between men and women takes many forms, from the most subtle to the most violent. And in Haiti, as anywhere, sexual violence increases dramatically during times of crisis.
The IRC continues to provide support to women and children who have survived violence (often repeatedly) and who require psychosocial care, medical assistance and legal counseling. We also address the root causes of violence by educating women and men about ways to prevent it. Participants in our training sessions tell us that they have learned about ways to deal with their frustrations other than with violence.
A woman's lack of economic power tends to increase her risk of facing violence. The IRC has created community savings groups to help women and their partners access credit and save money to meet household needs and start businesses. We train women not only in business skills but also on techniques for resolving problems and improving communication at home.
A few days ago one woman told us how at one time her husband never missed an opportunity to beat her. Now, she says, he thinks twice. Since taking the IRC training, she now knows her rights, and has a voice in the relationship and a network she can count on. “My life changed,” she says.
For Haitian society to change, however, much remains to be done. That is why the IRC is looking to adolescent girls as agents of change. We support "safe spaces" where girls meet to share experiences, and to learn about self esteem and their value within society. They also learn how to deal with the dynamics of power within their families and communities -- and how to prevent violence.
For us, these girls are the future.