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Empowering Haitian Women through Digital Tools

Dear All,

From the website for the conference, "Engendering Empowerment: Education and Equality," held in Dakar, Senegal, May 17-20, 2010 (UN Girls' Educational Initiative)

This week we have the pleasure of featuring a guest blog post from Emily Jacobi and Abby Goldberg from Digital Democracy. Digital Democracy is a New York-based nonprofit organization that works globally, using digital tools to empower civic engagement in marginalized communities. Emily Jacobi is co-founder of Digital Democracy and conducts trainings, creates curriculum focused on new media literacy and works directly with grassroots actors to design projects that leverage technology to solve pressing problems. Abby Goldberg leads Latin America, Caribbean and gender-based programming in addition to advising on organizational development and outreach.

We at Digital Democracy received a request from the Protection Officer for Sexual Exploitation and Abuse working on behalf of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, who relayed the enormous and immediate need for mechanisms to streamline protection, documentation, and service provisions around gender-based-violence. Her mandate was to create this mechanism and she asked whether we could join an “interagency working session”, meeting with thirteen local women leaders from five different organisations in Port Au Prince, to provide technical expertise at the meeting.

Why Haiti’s Women?
Digital Democracy has been working in Haiti since before the earthquake, and we worked to support the tech community’s response in helping to save lives in the early weeks following the disaster. In March, at the Commission on the Status of Women, Dd attended a panel at which women leaders from Haiti spoke about their reality – pre and post earthquake – and we realized that like in conflict and post-conflict settings where there are opportunities for creating vast structural change in favour of equality, natural disasters provide a similar opportunity. Women in Haiti have always been excluded from decision-making and formal governance processes throughout Haiti’s history. Vast legal and cultural discrimination has led to decades of violence targeting women. Nonetheless, while community organizations have developed to fill the vacuum of formal responses, women’s access to proper medical, psychosocial, and legal attention is barely existent. The earthquake worsened the lot of these women, but it is also an opportunity for rallying behind them to ensure their access to aid, and ultimately, a greater share of decision-making power. These are just a few of the facts we learned:

* Approximately one third of Haiti’s population was directly affected by the earthquake.
* Women’s status in Haiti before the earthquake was already dismal. Now, it is significantly worse. Gender Based violence was a major concern for national security pre-earthquake and women are at significantly increased risk and have reported growing incidence of sexual violence.
* Less than 4% representation of women in parliament – by far the lowest in the Hemisphere.
* Women have no land rights.
* Haitian women have not been part of Post Disaster Needs Assessment or any formal response after quake or recovery decision-making – no voice, access or visibility.
* Rape was only codified as a crime in 2005 – it remains a “crime of honor” meaning that punishment is contingent on the virginity of the woman and mitigated sentencing is available for marrying their victim.
* Four of the most important women leaders behind the women’s movement died in quake. It is hard to assess the impact of the quake on the network long term but for now, there has been a loss leadership and many members are homeless and displaced.
* The Women’s Ministry has scant resources. Formal responses to the problem are limited and the UN and NGO community still has not found an effective solution to streamline protection and reporting mechanisms for addressing this growing humanitarian crisis.

While this history is the reason we went to work with Haitian women, we departed for Haiti with two primary goals. First, we wanted to solidify relationships with actors on the ground and learn more about the use of technology—including mobile phones and mapping software—to streamline and more effectively address sexual violence and child protection in the aftermath of the earthquake. Second, we wanted to do what we could in just a short week to give tools to women leaders that would enable them to have greater voice, visibility, access, and impact in the rebuilding effort. To this end, we lead a two-day photo and media training and left cameras and other equipment behind so that they can continue to hone their skills, document their work, and be empowered by technology.

What we learned

* There is an urgent and critical window of opportunity right now in the aftermath of the unprecedented disaster in Haiti to support the women who are disproportionately affected and lacking access to official channels of aid and reconstruction decision-making. Now is the time to create important precedent for women and disaster risk/response/empowerment in Haiti that can have broad implications for countries around the world susceptible to natural disasters.
* Over the course of close to a dozen meetings with many of the major players at the UN, NGOs, and among community groups working on gender based violence and with Haitian women – we received consistent validation and support for our work and the important value it can add to efforts on the ground to support women and to address growing violence targeting them.
* Mobile access is higher in Haiti than most other places in the world – even in camps – and almost equal access for men and women.
* One of the greatest satisfactions of the trip was learning that some of the women’s organizations we worked with had been paying for photographers to document their work, in part to seek funding and visibility. Now they can do this themselves.
* The women’s organizations have little recognition outside of their communities. Organizations have no websites and are hard to find.
* There is a role to be played by agile, small NGOs and other “disruptive” forces – like Digital Democracy – to build bridges between various UN agencies and their respective “mandates”, community based groups, and international NGOs.
* The UN and all international actors must do a better job of finding ways to work with the local community in partnership. Haitian community groups are strong and effective, but lack resources and more importantly, access to the meetings where their voices and perspective must be heard.

This blog post was written by Abby Goldberg.

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