• Visit Anne-christine D'adesky's blog, Haiti Vox, to track the global response to Haiti's earthquake.
• See the New York Times' powerful photo coverage of the aftermath of the earthquake.
• Visit the Association for Women's Rights in Development's coverage of the crisis in Haiti, including discussion of the historical context of the quake, the impact of the disaster on Haiti's women, and information on how you can show your solidarity for Haiti's people.
Holding Up Haiti: Women Respond to Nightmare Earthquake
"We've lost so many leaders, so many women leaders, and so many women at all levels that it's just... just... inestimable." She’s trying to find her words. "It's an enormous loss."
In a breath, she ticks off the names of the famous and the lesser-known: "You've got Myriam Merlet, and Magalie Marcelin. There's Anne Marie Coriolan of SOFA, the Society of Haitian Women. They're right across the street. You've got Myrna Narcisse Theodore, who died and was with the Ministry of Women. She was really a presence at the Ministry. There's also Nicole Gregoire, who was in the public administration. She was an important woman who did a lot in the area of Haitian-Dominican affairs, who really did something...” Liliane pauses, looking around, her fingers counting. "There are more, there are more... We should name them, it's important.”
She closes her eyes, concentrating. "You have Gina Dorcena, an ex-journalist who was with Radio Tropic. You have the woman who deals with geospatial issues..." She grabs my leg: “My God, of course there's Mireille Anglade—une grande femme—again, an immeasurable loss. We have two members of SOFA that died, Mirland Dorvilus and Bernardine Bourdeau...." Liliane stops, reflective. "There's also an enormous loss of women who were in the professional sectors, and young women—so many young women who were our next generation of leaders. How can we even measure this?"
Liliane informs me that two days prior, at SOFA, surviving women leaders from across social sectors met to talk about the impact of the earthquake, which damaged SOFA and destroyed the office of Kay Fanm, a leading women's rights organization. There are a litany of community non-profits, microfinance organizations, rural centers, and other institutions serving women that have been destroyed or impacted by the quake.
"We're going to have to assess, and then find ways to help," she says.
What about how the earthquake affected ordinary women? In Haiti, there's a Kreyol word used for the central, fundamental role of women: Poto-Mitan, from the French word Poteau, as in 'the solid beam that holds up the house.' Haitian women are regarded as the brick and the engine of society—the mothers, the caregivers, the money-makers, and market-vendors, the ones who work tirelessly to care for their children and husbands and parents.
"Tu touche la femme, tu touche la famille," Liliane says, reciting another well-known fact: When you touch women, you touch the family. By now, we know that at least 140,000 lie dead in the rubble of the quake in Port-au-Prince, and that smaller cities like Jacmel, Petit Goave, and Jeremie suffered equally or even greater comparative destruction. Tens of thousands have been injured. Within these statistics are women and girls, including snapshots that reflect a terrible loss: 300 nurses in one institution, the collapse of schools with many girls, and more. Now, looking ahead, there are many women and girls who have amputated limbs, crushed bodies. And there are the women and girls who remain profoundly traumatized, in need of mental health services, as well as physical therapy, and ongoing restorative care.
There is also the additional vulnerability and threat of sexual violence and violence to women and girls that is a common feature during catastrophe and social instability. Without shelter or safety, there is real reason to worry about the period ahead. Haitian groups and UN agencies have gone public about their fear that sex traffickers will target Haitian children and orphans, especially girls. As a leading orphan's advocate stressed this week, "This is a serious preoccupation for us right now. We have to be vigilant and proactive to confront this threat."
Yet, as Liliane Pierre-Paul stresses, Haitians have long proven unbelievably strong and resilient, and women have demonstrated this in spades since the nightmare of January 12.
"It's important for us to recognize how strong women have been in this; how much leadership we have shown," she says. "As of now we haven't been able to really tell that story, the story of ordinary women, because we lost our voice—the radio—for that critical first week. And we've been in a state of complete survival and shock. But let me tell you, they have been incredible. The Haitian women are mobilizing. Even with everything that's been lost, with all their own injuries and pain, they are brave. It has to be said."
Later, at SOFA, we come together to set an agenda for how to include women's voices in the discussions about rebuilding Haiti. We talk about how if there are any people who are prepared to survive nature's most catastrophic earthquake, it is Haitians, a population that has learned to live with almost nothing, a people who have forever endured a scale of suffering unlike anywhere else in this hemisphere. We talked about the innumerable demonstrations of extraordinary strength and human spirit all around us: as individuals, as women, as a people, as a nation.
Looking ahead, Liliane is confident that women leaders will rally, and a new generation will rise to the extreme challenges that lie ahead. That includes creating fresh avenues for women to not only lead but to have a voice in the rebuilding of Haiti that is being envisioned now. And it means reaching out to other women, men, and groups around the world to ask for support and partnership.
"We need many partners, but we are ready to lead. That's the message that needs to be broadcast."