It was with great sadness that we learned of the deaths of Myriam Merlet, Magalie Marcelin, and Anne-Marie Coriolan, who perished in the recent earthquake. All three were human rights activists who played a major role in providing shelter and medical care to women who were victims of rape and violence, and in leading the campaign to criminalize rape in Haiti. While the deaths of these courageous women received prominent attention in the press, word from KOFAVIV, an organization we know well, went unnoticed. KOFAVIV is an group that offers medical attention and peer support to political rape victims, and importantly, documents the criminal activity. KOFAVIV women come from the poorer sections of Port-Au-Prince, often from the sprawling slums. Eramithe Delva and Malya Vaillard sadly reported that approximately 300 of the 1000 KOFAVIV women were killed in the earthquake along with their families.
At this time, having learned of the death of the women rights activists and of the victims of violence against women, it is worth while to consider what life was like for Haitian women before the earthquake, and how they, and their children, will become more vulnerable after the catastrophe.
Before the earthquake. By all measures: access to water and sanitation, infant mortality, universal malnutrition, and illiteracy, the situation in Haiti is bleak, particularly for women. Nearly half of all households are run by women, which includes not only caring for children, but for the elderly and ill, as well. Women often must support the family (average income is $1 per day, and earn half of what men take home.
The average life span of a Haitian women is 61 years; the good new is that it has increased over the past ten years. But unfortunately, this low life expectancy is likely to decline in the years following the 2008 hurricanes and the recent earthquake. Two statistics: a high fertility rate, and an extremely high maternal mortality rate (approximately 670 deaths per 100,000 live births) make for a lethal combination. The high maternal mortality rate is due to low numbers of skilled birth attendants, malnutrition, anemia and, and primarily, a lack of medical care to control complications associated with pregnancy and delivery. Further, the early initiation, often forced, to sexual activity, multiple partners, and lack of marital fidelity has contributed to the highest HIV infectivity rates in the Western Hemisphere. It is hoped that the promising news that HIV infectivity rates in 2006 rates began to drop in Haiti will persist and continue to decline. For all the reasons that HIV infectivity rates are high, the incidence of cervical cancer in Haitian women is the highest in the world. It is the leading cause of cancer deaths for Haitian women. Medicine For Peace has focused its efforts in cervical cancer detection and treatment in the rural region north of Port-Au-Prince.
In the context of a society suffering from extreme poverty, female vulnerability, and a machismo culture, there has been a history of impunity with regard to violence against women in Haiti. The valiant work of women rights activists has been important in the modest gains that have been made to date. Rape became a political weapon to silence opposition following the military coup that removed president Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power in 1991. After the rebellion and foreign intervention that removed Aristide again in 2004, numerous gangs participated in widespread lawlessness and violence against women. Many of the women active in the human rights movement were victims of that violence. A 2006 study by the Inter-American Development Bank in Haiti, and a 2008 Amnesty International Study reported that a third of all Haitian women have suffered physical or sexual abuse, and fifty percent of the victims were under 18 years old.
After the earthquake. A number of observers have commented that the lines of people jostling one another as they wait for food handouts are composed primarily of men. Obtaining aid appears to be an activity requiring physical strength, and there is fear that women, and their children. are not getting their fair share of the desperately needed food. In response to women being muscled out of food lines, the World Food Program has developed women-only food distribution centers. CARE is using gender specific distribution cards for women entitling them to their allotment of rice , beans, and oil. Hopefully, the distributed allotments will become large enough to last for a few weeks. Young women, pregnant and nursing women are particularly at risk for malnutrition during this period. Also, there are 30,000 pregnant women in Haiti at the present time; there is concern that because of the flooding of hospitals with emergency cases, these women will not receive the necessary medical attention to assist in difficult deliveries and to treat complications when they arise.
As homelessness and civil disorder persist, there have been initial reports, and considerable fear, that there will be increased sexual violence against displaced women. This is a common occurrence in the aftermath of large disasters, and was documented after the tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2004. The UN Stabilization Force in Haiti have received gender training and education in human rights; they are well-meaning, but seem ill equipped to deal with this problem.
If I have given the impression that Haitian women are weak, docile and passive, that is far from the truth. There is a Creole saying, kampe djann, which means "standing tall", which perfectly describes the women of Haiti. In the face of the difficulties of their daily existence, and of keeping their dependants alive through this disaster, they exhibit enormous strength. It is called - kenbe la- "holding the line". - Michael Viola
Information in this article is from personal observations, colleagues on the ground, reports from CARE, Amnesty International, UN Development Agency, ActionAid, Pan-American Health Organization, World Food Organization, and Reuters.