As the world honors the work, struggles and achievements of women on International Women’s Day, March 8, one way to spotlight the status of women is to look at recovery efforts underway in earthquake-stricken Haiti.
International Women’s Day, the annual commemoration of women begun in 1911, normally involves two components. It both celebrates women and renews their commitment to political, economic, and gender justice. The celebratory tone was absent Monday in a nation where perhaps a half-million, or roughly one in nine, is either dead or missing.
On the occasion, their Excellencies Michaelle Jean, Governor General of Canada, and Mr. Jean-Daniel Lafond took part in a women’s gathering, 2 000 participants of which have come together from all walks of life and who are working relentlessly since the earthquake ravaged the country.
It is in the spirit of solidarity that Her Excellency recognized in a speech these women’s efforts in the reconstruction of their community following this natural disaster.
“This year, International Woman’s Day is even more moving for me, because I am by your side, sisters of Haiti, as you strive to recover from disaster and rebuild. First of all, I want to join with everyone mourning the disappearance in the earthquake on January 12 of so many Haitian women committed to defending women’s rights, some of whom had very close ties with Canada,” said the Governor General.
Their Excellencies met with President Rene Preval and Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive in Haiti during a two-day visit.
This year although all the women’s names may not appear on the formal declarations or their voices in the press conference, women spanning all social classes and regions are speaking up and organizing for a reconstruction that is not just about infrastructure, but also about citizen participation and social rights such as adequate food, clean water, quality health care, and education.
In one International Women’s Day event, a coalition of feminist groups gathers in Port-au-Prince to commemorate four pioneering feminists who died in the earthquake – Magalie Marcelin, Anne Marie Coriolan, Mireille Neptune Anglade, and Myriam Merlet. Not far from where the women will stand is a freshly bulldozed lot. Less than two months ago, on the property stood a building which bustled with the energy of women organizing. It was the Ministry on the Status and Rights of Women, created by former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1994.
In other event rural women are advocating food sovereignty so that farmers – the majority of the population – can both support themselves and feed the nation while avoiding national dependence on food aid.
As for the other component, Haitian women will use the day to build onto a long tradition of justice organizing to change the balance of power.
The Jan. 12 earthquake that struck Haiti killed close to 230,000 and left up to a million homeless and so far only 50 percent of the affected population has received tents or plastic sheeting to protect against the weather. Late last month, heavy rains in coastal regions killed 13 and prompted the evacuation of almost 3,500 people.
Lots of efforts are being done to stimulate economic recovery. Concern Worldwide, the international humanitarian agency, has kicked off a series of cash-for-work projects and one-off cash transfers in Haiti. And women in particular are major beneficiaries of the initiatives.
“In Haiti, as in most of the world, women are the unbreakable core of their families and communities. This country will only be rebuilt if that core is strong and empowered,” said Elke Leidel, Concern’s country director in Haiti.
“In getting the local economy going again with injections of much-needed cash, it makes perfect sense to make women primary beneficiaries,” she said.
In addition to the cash-for-work program, Concern’s cash stimulus initiative will give 7,500 women identified by neighborhood committees and youth volunteers a one-time payment of $75. In the coming months, the agency will target and additional 43,650 people for cash-for-work programs, the majority of them women.
Last month, armed with wheelbarrows, brooms and spades, 72 teams of 15 people each were put to work in the Port-au-Prince slums of St. Martin and Martissant, Concern’s primary areas of operation in the Haitian capital.
The program will focus on removing debris to make room for temporary shelters; and to clear drainage and irrigation systems to prevent flooding during the imminent rainy season in Port au Prince.
On March 3, in remarks marking International Women’s Day, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that “until women and girls are liberated from poverty and injustice, all our goals peace, security, sustainable development stand in jeopardy.”
Worldwide, Concern today is launching the “Women Can’t Wait” campaign. The campaign’s key message is that poor women hold the key to tackling hunger and malnutrition because they are largely responsible for growing, buying, selling and cooking food in the world’s poorest countries.
One of the UN Millennium Development goals is to halve poverty and hunger by 2015. But today more than 1 billion are going to bed hungry every night and the majority of them are women and girls,” notes the “Women Can’t Wait” campaign.
Today, Concern looks to Haiti as a microcosm for what women’s power can achieve around the world if they are just given a chance.
“Haitians are enormously resilient,” said Leidel, “and none more so than the women.”