The Haitian Earthquake: An Update

*By Julie Zeilinger

With an estimated 50,000-100,000 dead, 300,000 homeless, and 3 million needing help in some form, it’s clear that the Haitian earthquake was a disaster that demands long-term support for recovery. But despite the fact that it has been over 7 months since the earthquake struck, Haiti continues to face numerous obstacles to recovery.

One major issue Haitian women specifically have been facing is the rise of gender-based violence in refugee camps and other vulnerable areas. A recent New York Times article, "Sexual Assaults Add to Miseries of Haiti’s Ruins" by Deborah Sontag, outlined the desperate need for training peacekeepers, humanitarian aid staff, local law enforcement and social workers to prevent gender-based violence. Currently, there is neither an adequate system for documentation of these claims, nor judicial capacity to handle sexual violence reports. And because there is inadequate accounting for gender roles in humanitarian operations, for example, women are increasingly resorting to transactional sex in response to the distribution of food tickets to men. At one camp, UN official Nancy Dorsinville asserted, every single woman screened for HIV tested positive. (See Linda Basch’s NY Times Letter to the Editor.)

An immediate solution to this problem according to Julie Sell of the American Red Cross, aside from the training of officials, is allocating some of the promised $5.5 billion in aid from international governments to transitional housing. Much of the violence against women occurring in Haiti stems from the massive numbers of people being forced to live together on the streets and in tent camps and their lack of protection or shelter; a problem that more substantial housing would work to dispel. However, due to issues such as recent flooding, debris left over from the earthquake, and legal land issues, the people of Haiti, especially Haitian women and girls, remain unprotected.

However, there are many concerned parties currently addressing the crisis. LERN (Lawyers Earthquake Response Network) is, “a national network of lawyers in the U.S. working with Haitian lawyers to implement a legal response to the earthquake in Haiti.” LERN has been fighting for safe housing in addition to more effective international assistance and has been seeking immigration opportunities for the displaced. On the gender front, they launched RAPP (Rape Accountability and Prevention Project), which works on structural and responsive levels to address violence against women in the wake of the earthquake. In addition, Haitian women themselves are fighting back against the violence. According to the Ms. Foundation for Women, who issued grants to four organizations working in the region, women in Haiti are organizing to combat violence by distributing rape whistles and are training for non-traditional jobs as a way of lifting themselves and their families out of poverty.

Though the situation may still seem dire, with the dedication of organizations such as LERN and the incredible courage and determination of the Haitian people, it seems as though there may be a light at the end of the tunnel.

*Julie Zeilinger, current Communications intern with the National Council for Research on Women, is the founder and editor of The FBomb, a blog and community for teenage feminists. She is a senior at the Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio.



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