Judy Mandelbaum

Judy Mandelbaum
Brooklyn, New York, United States
June 01
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JANUARY 31, 2010 9:24PM

Haitian relief: "Women and children first"

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  world food program
Children are the first victims in Haiti - and everywhere else
(Source: World Food Program)

The ongoing humanitarian disaster in Haiti has confronted international aid organizations with an insoluble task: providing millions of people with food and other supplies in a country with a shattered infrastructure and a near total breakdown of public order. How can they ensure that the relief efforts will benefit those who need them most? The crisis has given birth to a variety of rationing programs, including a highly controversial one: reserving food for women only.

The World Food Program has begun issuing a new type of food coupon for women. It did so after its staff noted how young men continually elbow their way to the head of food lines and secure supplies for themselves, leaving women (and everyone else) far behind. Since forty-five percent of Haitian households are headed by women, and since Haitian women traditionally provide food for their families in any case, the previous system had left many of these families hungry. Thanks to the new color-coded coupons, up to 10,000 women per day can now pick up twenty-five kilos (fifty-five pounds) of rice at sixteen distribution sites in Port-au-Prince for themselves and their children, the aged, and the sick. The WFP is cooperating with local organizations to make sure that needy men are also provided for.

All in all, the WFP has reached over 600,000 Haitians and has provided more than sixteen million meals since the earthquake struck on January 12. According to executive director Josette Sheeran, “Up until now the nature of this emergency has forced us to work in a ‘quick and dirty’ way simply to get food out. This new system will allow us to provide food assistance to more people, more quickly through a robust network of fixed distribution sites. The entire humanitarian family and the military forces on the ground in Haiti have come together to make this possible.”

In other news, the WFP has prioritized food deliveries to orphanages and hospitals. In one children’s home in the capital, Notre Dame de la Nativité, fifty- six out of the original 134 children died in the earthquake along with a nurse. There are some 300 children’s homes in the capital, each in various stages of disarray.

  notre dame de la nativite
Upon the ruins of the Notre Dame de la Nativité
children's home in Port-au-Prince
(Source: World Food Program)

The disaster has left around one million people homeless and two million dependent on international food aid in this country of nearly ten million. 700,000 currently live in refugee camps, many of them without basic services. The twenty-thousand latrines dug by international aid organizations fall far short of the needed capacity. In some places, up to 2,000 people are sharing a single portable toilet. This means that diseases such as dysentery and cholera, which are transmitted through poor bad hygiene and contaminated water, are likely to claim even more lives than they have so far.  

As I reported earlier, the earthquake claimed the lives of many women’s leaders, including Myriam Merlet, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Women's Rights chief of cabinet and the founder of Haiti's National Coordination for Advocacy on Women's Rights; Myrna Narcisse, the ministry's director general; and Magalie Marcelin, the founder of KayFamn, an organization that operates Haiti’s sole shelter for survivors of gender-based violence. They and many other leaders were killed when the Ministry of Women collapsed upon them during the quake. It is hard to overestimate the impact of this loss on Haitian women who had been dependent on their contacts and expertise.

Among the supplies being distributed to women are “dignity” and “reproductive kits.” The dignity kits include sanitary napkins, hygiene materials, and underwear. The reproductive health kits contain a clean sheet, a sterile blade to cut an umbilical cord, a clean string to tie the cord, and a blanket to wrap the baby in. Aid workers are also distributing radios – many of them solar-powered – which can help provide women with essential information on ongoing relief efforts and nearby clinics.

In recent days it has become strangely popular among comfortably-situated people in the USA to blame the Haitians for their own misfortune. This trend reached its peak in a heartless blog post by ESPN’s (now former) blogger Paul Shirley. “Shouldn't much of the responsibility for the disaster lie with the victims of that disaster?" he wrote. He went on to say, “As we prepare to assist you in this difficult time, a polite request: If it's possible, could you not re-build your island home in the image of its predecessor? Could you not resort to the creation of flimsy shanty- and shack-towns? And could some of you maybe use a condom once in a while?”

To those who say that Haitians – including, presumably, women and children, who have zero decision-making power – willed all this on themselves, all I can say* is that there is indeed a time for thinking about Haiti’s future. But if their situation cannot be stabilized in the present, they won’t have any future worth talking about.

It’s not exactly rocket science, is it?

* Actually, I could say a lot more to people like this, but this is a family site...



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I'll admit their rationing sounds awful at first, but I do see their point.
Thanks for the update!
Thank you for your reporting! Our hearts and prayers and help stay with the Haitian people...