On the Ground: Women Struggle to Survive in Haiti

Date: 25 January 2010

UNIFEM is working in Haiti to expand the provision of emergency services for women in the aftermath of the earthquake on 12 January 2010. As part of the overall UN effort in the country, UNIFEM particularly seeks to rebuild women’s shelters and to ensure that relief efforts incorporate a gender perspective. The work of the UNIFEM team in Haiti includes going out among the survivors who are seeking refuge in spontaneous and self-managed temporary camps.

In the Pétionville suburb in the hills east of Port-au-Prince, the makeshift shelters are made of oilcloth, plastic sheets, canvas and other materials found among the debris; a few tents can be seen here and there. Grouped in open spaces and sometimes in the middle of the street, people try to go on with their lives as they wait for emergency aid to be distributed. By 11:00, spaces are filled with women and children. Youth wander around or supervise younger siblings. The women are busy with caring for children, exchanging small goods and preparing food. Many people have gone in search of supplies, a relative or a friend who is unaccounted for.

Thousands Piling on the Ground

Consisting of playgrounds and sports fields, the Place Boyer area in Pétionville used to be frequented by teenagers and children and the surrounding restaurants used to be bustling at night. But since 12 January, the area has become one of the major provisional camps for displaced people. At night, thousands of men, women and children pile on the ground. Sanitary conditions are deplorable, with only five portable toilets around the area. Families try to keep together. The space is littered with trash, but people are obviously making an effort to keep their immediate surroundings relatively tidy. Police patrols provide basic security.

One of the people interviewed by UNIFEM staff members was Claudette, who had taken refuge in Place Boyer on the day of the earthquake, along with fifteen members of her family. Their house, 1 kilometre away, had collapsed, leaving two people dead and one injured. Claudette was able to recover some money that she has used to get by, but she has had to show resourcefulness to secure daily necessities. She has received regular rations of water, but distribution of food has been limited and sporadic.

Nearby, the UNIFEM team met Janita, who had been displaced with her mother, husband and five children. In spite of the danger, Janita had gone back to her badly damaged house to get provisions; soap, sugar and other non-perishable goods. Her three little boys were playing around her with toy cars that they had made from rubble, and sitting beside her was her teenage daughter, bent over a notebook in which she was writing her thoughts. She was the only child in the family who had been attending school this winter; the boys had been out of school since September 2009 for lack of means.

Surviving through Solidarity

Another major temporary camp is in the Champs-de-Mars park in the centre of Port-au-Prince. The large park is divided into small squares and recreational areas, surrounded by government buildings, now badly damaged — including the Presidential Palace. The park is crowded with makeshift shelters where people from nearby neighbourhoods have taken refuge. The area is so large that it has proved difficult to keep count of the people and distribute aid, and issues of sanitation are pressing. All kinds of drama are being played out among the crowd; including a young woman giving birth and subsequently being given shelter in a car with her newborn child.

In the Champs-de-Mars, UNIFEM staff members met Chantal, who had been living nearby with her husband, her mother-in-law, two children and six dependent nephews and nieces. Chantal explained that her house was in ruins and that the family had lost everything. She was now camping in the Champs-de-Mars along with a group of neighbours, who were showing solidarity and trying to share the little money and goods that they had been able to recover from their crumbling homes. Chantal had received limited emergency assistance and stressed that the displaced people in Champs-de-Mars were only able to survive because they were helping each other out. She said she returned to her neighbourhood each day to clean up, as the provisional sanitary facilities in the Champs-de-Mars were filthy and repelling. She wondered what she would do, but the family had been able to send her children and young relatives to her native town of Jacmel two days after the earthquake. Chantal was relieved that they had reached a safer environment, especially for the young girls.