This post was originally written on February 20th, 2010, just one week before the 8.8 magnitude earthquake hit Concepción, Chile.
“I’m not going to defend Haitian women because I’m President,” said Michelle Bachelet, “but rather because I am a woman convinced of the importance of the fight for women and their rights.” The Chilean President shared these words during her special meeting with the Haitian Minister of Women’s Affairs and four representatives from women’s organizations on February 20th in the gardens of the destroyed National Palace in Port-au-Prince.
The women’s rights activists presented a four-point agenda to Marjorie Michel, the Haitian Minister of Women’s Affairs. They mainly sought to address the situation of women in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake and to ensure the participation of women in the reconstruction of Haiti. The agenda also outlined concrete actions needed to prevent violence against women in the camps and the need for training of women in professions currently reserved for men.
One topic that stood out was the current situation of violence against women. Activists presented two stories of violence against women in camps, and emphasized that these incidents were reported in places where ex-convicts had escaped during the earthquake.
Paisley Dodds, a reporter with the Associated Press wrote a story on February 6th based on the testimony of a 22-year old Haitian woman in a spontaneous settlement in Port-au-Prince. “Bernice Chamblain keeps a machete under her worn-out mattress to scare off sexual predators, and keeps a leg folded around a sack of rice at night time so that thieves cannot steal the food from her daughters.”
Bernice Chamblain said women have always had a difficult situation in Haiti, but now it is worse. “I try not to sleep,” says Chamblain, who lost her father and now lives in a squalid camp with her mother and aunts, near the Port-au-Prince airport. “Some of the men who escaped from prison are arriving at the camps and causing problems for women. We are all scared, but what can we do?”
Numerous reports abound of women who have been robbed of their coupons to obtain food at distribution points, and other rumors of rape and sexual intimidation in the open-air camps, now home to over half a million survivors.
The activists presented their demands to take preventative measures in the camps, which include the re-establishment of a public fence, and measures so that food distribution and other services would be carried out in their own camps. The United Nations has confirmed that humanitarian disasters increase the risk of violence against women and girls.
The meeting between Bachelet and the activists reaffirmed that the central role of women in the context of disaster and reconstruction requires a variety of solutions so that the needs of women and girls are taken into account. The importance of strengthening the presence of women’s voices and perspectives in decision-making for the future of Haiti has been a recurring theme.
One additional topic that was not on the original meeting agenda with Bachelet was health, highlighting the need to take measures to stop the high rates of maternal mortality and to advance sexual and reproductive health. Haiti has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the western hemisphere: UN data from 2006 found that 630 women out of every 100,000 women die from pregnancy complications.
“Bachelet was very happy and receptive with us,” said Lise-Marie Déjean of SOFA, who acted as a translator during the meeting. “She explained that Chile is a country of earthquakes, but there has been preventative education to avoid major catastrophes.”
She commented that the Chilean president told those present that she was proud to be a spokeswoman for UNIFEM for Haiti, and that her fight would be not only to support the actions proposed by women’s organizations, but also to reinforce the organizations themselves.
“The International Feminist Solidarity Camp was present, but invisible – noted Déjean – because Preval asked me to translate for the others, so I wasn’t able to speak.” At the end of the interview the Haitian activists from the Camp gathered to see how the strategy of the Camp could help to strengthen the active role that UNIFEM is playing in the current context. “Sisterhood and solidarity are important elements to continue this agenda now,” said Déjean.
The International Feminist Solidarity Camp is operating in Haiti and in any place in the region and the world where feminists and their organizations carry out actions of support for women’s organizations and their communities. It was created on January 27 in a meeting attended by more than twenty networks and organizations throughout the region.
Maria Suarez Toro is a producer of FIRE, Feminist International Radio Endeavor at Radio for Peace Internacional. FIRE set up a communications center at the Internacional Feminist Camp located between Haiti and the Dominican Republic and through radio has helped to give voice to Haitian women about the conditions in their lives. Based in San Jos઼, Costa Rica, Maria has covered the actions and activities of the international women's movement at every major UN conference of the past two decades.
The Global Fund for Women is the largest grantmaking foundation in the world funding women's health and human rights. Since 1987, they have funded over $75 million to 3,800 women-led organizations in more than 160 countries.
BlogHer is helping "Write Women Back Into History" by participating in Women's History Month 2010. We are showcasing the stories of women in Haiti in the wake of the January earthquake. You can read more from BlogHer's Women of Haiti series throughout the month.
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