Commentary: Women Are the Epicenter of Haiti’s Renewal

Article Date

01 April 2010

Article Author

Sarah Degnan Kambou

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

For Haiti to recover from the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake, for it to reinvent itself and reposition itself regionally, more than new buildings need to rise. The island nation requires a new social foundation. International donors gathering in New York on March 31 to discuss innovative ideas for Haiti’s future will do well to recognize that their efforts will go farther, faster if women are the center of Haiti’s renewal.  

Every nation’s greatest asset is its people, and in Haiti, women’s activities – such as farming and commerce – make up more than three-quarters of the country’s informal economy. That’s significant, because in Haiti, the poorer the household, the more dependent it is on revenue generated by women, regardless of whether that household is headed by a man or a woman.  

Yet despite women’s contributions and strong presence – they are more than half of Haiti’s population – the inequities of Haitian society remain extreme.  Almost 60 percent of Haitian women cannot read or write. Early marriage is common, with 24 percent of girls wedded before the age of 18. Haiti’s fertility rate is the highest in the region, and its maternal mortality rate leads, too, with 670 deaths for every 100,000 children born. Haiti also holds the region’s highest rates of violence against women, which is among the highest in the world.

This was the landscape before the earth shook.

Now, Haiti has the opportunity to reverse inequities, and build a better nation for all of its citizens. It will require creating targeted opportunities for women to participate fully in Haitian society, and have a meaningful role in what stands to be a decades-long reconstruction of their country. But Haiti’s women cannot contribute wholly if they’re not educated and healthy and if they can’t give birth safely or stay free of violence. With that, it’s imperative that the international community make committed investments in Haitian women as central actors in every phase of Haiti’s recovery. Indeed, research conducted during the past 30 years demonstrates that women can play a critical part in social and economic development when they have access to economic resources – such as the right to earn a living, access to credit or the ability to own land; when their education levels rise and their nutrition and health improves; and when the threat of domestic violence diminishes.  When these types of conditions are met, women are better positioned to make a difference.

Given the evidence, it’s critical that officials make Haitian women an integral part of their discussions at the United Nations’ international donors’ conference about Haiti’s future. A call to do this already exists in the Millennium Development Goals and was reiterated earlier this month when the UN convened its 54th Commission on the Status of Women.

What’s more, there are models of practical approaches for creating more equitable societies in developing countries like Haiti. Rwanda is just one example of a country that did it right by using reconstruction as an opportunity to promote gender equality. How? Following the genocide of 1994, Rwanda created one of the world’s most gender equitable constitutions, with mechanisms to support women’s rights at the local, regional and national levels. Lawmakers endorsed legislation and made commitments to end violence against women.

Today, 56 percent of the country’s parliament members are women – the highest representation of female elected officials in the world. Rwanda also created a monitoring body called the Gender Observatory that ensures that equality between women and men is upheld in government at all levels. With a commitment to advancing women’s educational and business skills, Rwanda’s economy has stabilized to what it was before the genocide. In 2008, the country even registered record-high economic growth of 11 percent.

Haiti, too, could experience similar outcomes.

Rebuilding its society without leaving half its people behind – women – but rather, working in partnership with them, can help Haiti have a better chance of emerging from the rubble with a stronger foundation for its renewal.

Sarah Degnan Kambou is chief operating officer of the International Center for Research on Women in Washington, D.C. A globally recognized expert in gender relations, she focuses on issues related to health and development. Degnan Kambou holds a doctorate in international health policy and a master’s in public health from Boston University.