Dispatch from Haiti: Finding Safe Spaces for Haitian Women

March 4, Port-au-Prince. Five days into my new life in Haiti, working for the United Nations alongside Haitian women.

Days are so full it feels like I have been here much longer. Working on gender-based violence is always a full-time job, but more so here than anywhere else I’ve been. This work has taken me around the world–to Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Papua New Guinea–and yet I’ve never been as challenged as I am here in Haiti.

Before the earthquake, Haiti’s women’s movement was vibrant and its momentum great. Now, feminist leaders have been lost, buildings have been decimated and everyone is trying to find ways to recapture what existed before.

A bit of context: There was a system and structures for preventing, responding to and tracking gender-based violence in Haiti before the earthquake. There was also a national plan to address violence against women. But how do you track all of that when the structure housing the Women’s Ministry has been absolutely crushed, with many of the staff and nearly all of the ministry’s information lost?

We are trying to find out what still exists and build on it, in order to provide services for women who need it most. To start, we’re handing out referral cards that list hospitals and NGOs where Haitian women survivors of violence can get support. In the camps where those who are homeless now live, conditions are still difficult: Women have no privacy. Lighting is poor. Sanitation facilities are few.

The situation changes every day, so we are always looking for creative ways to meet women’s needs, including community patrolling and improved lighting. We’re providing tents for women’s groups to use as safe spaces. And we’re reaching out to civil society groups to find ways to support women directly, including encouraging the group members to take care of themselves. They have not stopped working since the earthquake!

This year, on International Women’s Day, we are honoring Haitian feminist leaders who were lost in the earthquake. Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of UNFPA, will attend the event, which will take place in a Port-au-Prince park that’s an important symbol of the Haitian women’s movement: It’s named after Catherine Flon, who worked to end slavery and sewed the first Haitian flag in 1803. The survivors from the Women’s Ministry and many Haitian women’s organizations will be there–and so will I.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the U.N. in any way.

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I am a gender & development practitioner and researcher with 12 years of experience in some incredibly interesting countries like Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Morocco, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea--and now Haiti. I focus mostly on gender-based violence but have worked on a broad range of gender issues including HIV&AIDS, political participation, etc.--whatever is needed to promote gender equality wherever I might be! For instance, in Papua New Guinea I worked on gender issues through an HIV&AIDS program, addressing sexual violence as both a cause and consequence of HIV status. In Sierra Leone, I worked with sexual assault referral centers to address the needs of women survivors of violence. In Afghanistan, I set up an international NGO to provide basic services, rights training, and skills training for Afghan women. These experiences led to my PhD--researching the effects of gender-focused international aid in conflict and post-conflict contexts, with a specific focus on gender-based violence. My book, “Gender and International Aid in Afghanistan: The Politics and Effects of Intervention”, was released late last year. And now I’m in Haiti – working as the Gender-Based Violence Coordinator with the UN Humanitarian Response.