Why "women and children first" persists

We talk to experts about painful choices in the Haiti relief effort

Published January 14, 2010 1:01AM (EST)

Beyond the desperate scramble to deliver basic aid to the people of quake-ravaged Haiti, there are attempts under way to specifically help women and children. It may seem an outmoded approach -- something along the lines of "women and children first" -- but they are typically the ones most vulnerable in the wake of a catastrophe like the 7.0 earthquake that hit the country Tuesday, potentially killing hundreds of thousands.

"It's easy to see how [children] are more prone to outbreaks of disease,” UNICEF’s Patrick McCormick told Broadsheet. “They are weaker, they are smaller and there are more of them." In Haiti, almost half the population is under age 21 -- and "women are with their children, usually," he explains. "So, what we do in situations like this is to create safe areas where they can congregate." Even before Haiti was rocked by the quake, it had “the highest rates of infant, under-five and maternal mortality in the Western hemisphere,” according to UNICEF.

Of course, pregnant women may be in need of special medical attention, as well as "supplementary food and vitamins," Elaine Enarson, cofounder of the Gender and Disaster Network, wrote in an e-mail. Unfortunately, Doctors Without Borders has had to evacuate patients from its severely damaged Port-au-Prince obstetrics hospital, Maternité Solidarité. Women in general will be in need of "hygiene supplies, continued access to birth control/reproductive health services … [and] supplies for their children and other dependents," added Enarson, who began studying disaster response after her own experience on the ground after Florida’s Hurricane Andrew.

It isn’t just that women often require special care and resources post-disaster; human rights organizations say that they could also play a critical role in distributing much-needed aid. Women "are central actors in family and community life," says Enarson, and are more likely to know "who in the neighborhood most needs help -- where the single mothers, women with disabilities, widows and the poorest of the poor live." Diana Duarte, a spokesperson for MADRE, an international women’s rights organization that has joined the relief effort, put it this way: "Women are often more integrated and more aware of the vulnerabilities of their communities."

Even beyond the initial emergency response, there lies a long road to recovery that holds other unique challenges for women and girls. They are "at increased risk of gender-based violence, especially domestic violence and rape but also forced marriage at earlier ages" due to their increased dependence on men for protection and support, says Enarson. After a disaster of this magnitude, there will also be scores of "newly disabled, widowed or homeless women" in need of help. MADRE’s Duarte points out that women’s generally higher "level of poverty negatively effects their ability to access resources to rebuild."

Ultimately, focusing on women during the recovery process is hopefully a means of helping all of Haiti's survivors: It "is one way to build safer, more sustainable and more disaster resilient communities," says Enarson. "It is the precious legacy of enormous tragedy and we cannot afford to squander it."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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