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Gender in Haiti – Problems, Solutions and Mainstreaming

August 31, 2011

At the end of September I’m heading to Haiti to take up a Monitoring and Evaluation position for 6 months. Much of my background reading in the past few days has involved trying to get to grips with the history and current issues surrounding shelter and land, WatSan and the Cholera epidemic. Behind all of these challenges however lies the issue of gender, and once you start looking at issues with a gendered perspective, it is hard to stop – Will x new project actually increase a woman’s daily work load? Will z new family planning project work if you don’t also target men and boys?

When looking at the narratives on Haiti however, on first sight many of the same predictable gender messages are (necessarily) repeated; ‘Not enough attention/funding is being paid to the needs of women and girls’, ‘There is a need for serious government and organisational gender policies and mainstreaming…’

‘Co-ordination’, ‘mainstreaming’ and ‘gendered policies’ often jump out from the pages. A number of recent reports and articles however highlight several key issues which lie behind the calls co-ordination and mainstreaming:

Security in the camps

The video ‘Rape in the camps: Sexual violence in Haiti after the quake’ paints an excellent picture of the vulnerability of camp residents to sexual violence;

People don’t have showers, they don’t have restrooms. If you find a place to pitch you have to get a basin in front of your tent to shower. That means that men take advantage of that

And of the attitudes that can discourage women from reporting the crime;

Sometimes when the women come to the police station, the men ask them weird questions which hurt the women’s feelings, The police sometimes ask them ‘what time were you raped? Wasn’t it at midnight? Isn’t it because you were walking out in the street too late that they raped you? Look at your big butt!’

How do you improve security in the camps, where a tent can easily be cut with a knife? An article from Refugees International in June 2010 reported that security committees carrying out sporadic patrols existed in many camps do exist, but are naturally troubled with corruption and/or a lack of basic training and funds. The report also highlighted the role of unsupported local women’s groups in holding self-defence and GBV awareness sessions, but stressed that the groups received many death threats for the work that they do. 

The justice system and access to post-rape care

Receiving care and seeking prosecution after rape involves both institutional and logistical challenges, many of which are common issues in justice systems worldwide. Many women and girls may not be aware of the post-rape services available, or may be to traumatised or in fear of reprisals to seek support. In the event of receiving care, as of May 2011 only certain large hospitals in Haiti were authorised to provide the medical certificates needed for prosecution, which must be issued within three days of the rape. If deciding to seek prosecution, according to the article  ‘The Word on Women – Haitian justice struggles to cope with rape epidemic’

Rights groups say many police fail to treat rape as a crime and often assume the women brought it on themselves, for example by dressing provocatively. Human rights lawyers say corruption is rife, with families of the accused often paying judges to dismiss rape cases.

 The complexities of access to free health care

Indeed a new report by Human Rights Watch – ‘Haiti earthquake recovery failing women and girls’, released yesterday – stresses that although there are now unprecedented levels of free heath care in Haiti, access to pre-natal and maternal health care amongst women remains very low. The report highlights that although pre-natal care is often free, many women and girls can not pay for transport or associated costs of tests such as sonograms, summarising that three key types of delay exist which puts women at risk:

Delay in deciding to seek appropriate medical care; delay in reaching an obstetric facility; and delay in receiving adequate care when reaching a facility. For the women and girls we interviewed, these delays occurred because women and girls did not recognize signs of early labor or were unfamiliar with a new neighborhood; because the places where they previously received care had been destroyed in the earthquake; because of distance, security concerns, or transportation costs; and because of inadequate care at facilities [Page 7]

 Gender Mainstreaming

What then of gender mainstreaming? Gender mainstreaming – taking each intervention and policy and analysing the potential gender issues involved – takes continuous and long-term thinking in any organisation. It involves first thinking of what effect an intervention could have on women and girls, and how to take a gendered perspective in design; when installing new toilet facilities in a camp for example, will women and girls feel vulnerable walking along an ill lit path to the toilets at night? The safety of women in camps may seem like an obvious example, but then there are the mainstreaming questions where the answers are harder to predict; how do you include and support female headed households involvement in a cash for work or livelihoods programme? Would supporting a change in traditional gender roles potentially increase gender based violence within the household?

Gender mainstreaming however is also about resources, structures and co-ordination; ensuring that an organisation’s personnel, information management systems, and decision makers have not only received one of ‘gender trainings’, but are supported, and pushed to develop and use relevant gender indicators to integrate gender in the long term

But what happens then in a disaster context, where other needs, such as setting up a public information campaign to prevent the spread of a cholera outbreak, can seem more pressing?

It is for this reasons that the article ‘The Debating Chamber – Haiti: now is the time to work on gender issues’, by Dara Dara notes that:

The “we will take care of this when we can” soon became the current “we should be working on it, but…”. Very few of those interviewed by the HRI team were able to respond concretely and provide specific examples of effective work around gender……You can copy and paste the same paragraph in the gender section of every proposal and nobody complains. As in other crises, gender in Haiti is relegated to an element that donors like seeing in funding proposals but sadly is rarely implemented or monitored in practice


Specific examples of effective work however do exist. A brief by the US Institute of Peace on ‘Security After the Quake? Addressing Violence and Rape in Haiti’,  gives examples of the distribution of solar flash lights by the International Organization for Migration (30,000 as of November 2010), and of  thousands of whistles which can scare off potential rapists by the Haitian organization KOFAVIV.

Recommendations in most reports however continue to call for ‘Organisational gender policies with clear avenues for women and girls’ participation’ for example. While it is easy to roll your eyes at calls such as the above however, or for ‘co-ordination across local and international organisations’ , and while it is more appealing to read of ‘solutions’ in the form of whistle distribution, the narratives surrounding gender policies and mainstreaming continue to exist for a reason.

Gender mainstreaming and co-ordination are about the nuts and bolts of ensuring that actually, those whistles are distributed to women in camps as soon as the camps are set up, and that different agencies have agreed to co-ordinate this as a first step in improving camp security; that those solar lights are not seen as a one off solution to improving security in the camps, and that as an output they represent one indicator met amongst many in an organisation’s gendered response. And that finally, those issues and indicators are monitored and treated as an integral part of relief and recovery, alongside and as a part of any other intervention, whether it be shelter, WatSan or otherwise.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2011 12:34 pm

    Really interesting examples. Were there any good articles on gender considerations in WASH or shelter activities too?

    • August 31, 2011 12:36 pm

      No is the simple answer, but I admittedly haven’t dug very deeply yet and want to try and delve into more depth soon…

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