LONDON (AlertNet) – In one of the camps sheltering the homeless in Haiti’s earthquake-stricken capital, a group of male volunteers stands guard over hundreds of teenage girls and young women as they sleep during the night. The women there are so afraid of being attacked that they have organised the protection themselves, according to ActionAid, which says several women have already reported cases of rape or sexual abuse to their staff in the camp. Elsewhere in Port-au-Prince, women have left food lines empty-handed after groups of men raided food distribution sites watched by police who were too few and too powerless to stop them. “Unfortunately, it’s like every catastrophe. It becomes Darwinistic – where the strongest have access to food, water and medicine, and the most vulnerable — which are unfortunately still women and children — don’t necessarily have the physical force to last in those lines,” said Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of Equality Now, a U.S.-based rights group. Aid workers and human rights activists are increasingly worried that in a country where women’s rights are routinely trampled upon or ignored, women are again being marginalised. This time, they fear women are losing out on their fair share of desperately-needed aid following the devastating quake that killed up to 200,000 people and left nearly 1 million more homeless in the Caribbean island nation. The inequality is more acute when you consider that 48 percent of the households are headed by women, who are not only taking care of the children but probably elderly members of the family too, said Haiti researcher at Amnesty International, Gerardo Ducos. “It is important that women are targeted as the direct recipients of aid. It can make a big difference in ensuring they receive what they deserve, but also the children receive what is intended for them,” Ducos told AlertNet. With that in mind, some relief agencies are using “gender-specific mechanisms” in aid delivery, which is just jargon for ways that focus on women to ensure their needs are met. Among them is aid agency CARE’s distribution of cards to women entitling them to rice, beans and oil or other goods. Giving to women ensures the food will get to families because men are more likely to sell it, CARE’s director in Haiti, Sophie Perez, said. And it is more orderly. An ActionAid spokesman said although the organisation was concentrating on delivering food, it encouraged the system of protection set up by women in one of the camps it is working in. LOSS OF RIGHTS ICONS Experts with experience of responding to natural disasters say women and children are especially vulnerable after such calamities. But this is particularly true in a country where one-third of women and girls said they had suffered physical or sexual violence, and more than 50 percent of those who had experienced violence were under the age of 18 — such were the findings of a study carried out by the Inter-American Development Bank in Haiti in 2006. In one report, a Swiss doctor described how he treated a girl — who, he said was at most, 12 years old — for vaginal lacerations after she had been pulled out from under the rubble and raped by her rescuer. The account was a harrowing reminder of how precarious life can be for women and girls in Haiti, Bien-Aime said. On top of their battle to deal with the aftermath of quake, Haitian women lost three of their best champions in the Jan. 12 disaster. Myriam Merlet, Magalie Marcelin and Anne-Marie Coriolan were women’s rights icons who were instrumental in the campaign to criminalise rape, experts say. The law was eventually changed in 2005. “What the loss of these women for Haiti means is really the loss of half of the women’s movement which was a powerful movement but nevertheless very, very small in numbers, very limited in capacity and resources,” Bien-Aime told AlertNet. “Each of these women who died contributed enormously to the lives of women in terms of changing laws and seeking justice for women who have been violated in some way whether it’s domestic violence or rape. They were irreplaceable in the context of Haiti.” Merlet, who held a senior position in the Ministry for the Rights of Women, was one of the first women to document cases of rape during Haiti’s 1991-4 military regime and identify its use as a political weapon, Amnesty’s Ducos said. Marcelin founded Kay Fanm, which for many years operated the only shelter in the country for women who had been battered by their husbands and boyfriends. It later opened another shelter for survivors of sexual violence. Coriolan founded one of Haiti’s largest women’s advocacy groups, Solidarite Fanm Ayisyèn (SOFA). Against a backdrop of widespread impunity and poverty, these organisations were important in ensuring that survivors of sexual abuse received immediate access to adequate medical care — anti-retrovirals, contraceptive pills — as well as psychological support and legal advice. The deaths of these leading activists were a blow to Haiti’s women’s rights movement, but Ducos said many women were part of this movement which despite the challenges continues to evolve and grow.
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