Women's civil society groups were noticeable by their absence from the landmark Haiti donor conference on 31 March, which secured pledges of US$5.3 billion over the next two years to support the country's post-quake recovery.
Their lack of a presence at the meeting was indicative of a broader missing voice in Haiti's long-term reconstruction prospects, gender activists argued.
“Why are we not there right now, where are the women at this conference?” questioned Marie St. Cyr, a Haitian human rights advocate. “We still don't have full participation and we certainly don't have full inclusion. Haitian women are still being raped…they are supporting more than half of the households, and yet they are not being heard.”
More than 20 women's groups attended an alternative conference hosted by MADRE, a New York-based rights organization. St. Cyr said she had lobbied for the past month to join the donor meeting, but had not received a response from any of the various co-hosts, including the United Nations, the Haitian and the US governments.
Haitian-born Massachusetts State Representative Marie St. Fleur, who represented the diaspora community at the main conference, said she was not surprised to look across the room and see few other female faces. The text of the Haitian government's Post-Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA), a blueprint plan for recovery, offered a similar lack of gender diversity, she explained.
“There needs to be a bolder vision for reconstruction, and right now, there isn't a very clear place for women within that,” St. Fleur told IRIN. “But I think we make a mistake when we say that we have to have a place for women, because they must not placed in a corner like that. Women and girls must be integrated throughout this plan. And that doesn't exist, right now.”
The PDNA report divides reconstruction into eight main themes, including governance, infrastructure sectors, and environmental and disaster risk development. Women gain inclusion only in the “cross-cutting sector,” which also addresses youth and culture.
The Haiti Gender Equality Collaborative, a coalition of civil society organizations, placed its own spin on the document, issuing a modified “gender shadow report” at the MADRE conference, hosted across the street from the United Nation Secretariat. It highlights the gender concerns absent from Haiti's PDNA, and offers recommendations for gender-sensitive plans of action.
Enabling the participation of gender equality experts in all sectors of reconstruction, and ensuring that funding streams include gender-specific allocations are among the alternative report's proposals, according to Kathy Mangones, UNIFEM's Haiti office representative.
Women in Haiti, however, do not have the luxury of waiting for action, St. Cyr noted. Before the earthquake, they were running half the households – and those numbers have now risen, with women taking in children from other families.
The issue of sexual violence also remains an enormously grave, though largely undocumented one.
Edmond Mulet, the acting head of the UN Mission in Haiti, known as MINUSTAH, said at a press conference last week that while the numbers are unknown, reports of sexual violence and rape are on the rise. The UN considers the matter “urgent,” he said, and plans on deploying an all-female Bangladesh Formed Police Unit (FPU) of military peacekeepers imminently. It will be the second-ever all-female FPU the UN has deployed, and Mulet anticipated their presence in the often cramped and poorly-lit displaced camps “would be extremely helpful.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted in a closing press conference at the main donor meeting that he remained “painfully aware, in particular, of reports of sexual violence”. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and UNDP Administrator Helen Clark, among others, also spoke of the need to prioritize the needs of women.
Yet without women at the table, the sentiment fell short, said St. Cyr.
“We need to be heard because the system has failed us so miserably. These systematic failures have shown that our voices have not been taken into consideration or prioritized,” she said. “This is beyond words. It's beyond laws that are not being implemented. It's beyond dollars. It's a country in degradation that is progressively being buried. The earthquake didn't bury Haiti, Haiti has been continuously buried for years, and it's time we help dig it out.”