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Haiti: Protect Women, Girls in Quake Response

Learn from 2010 Experience; Meet Needs of At-Risk Groups

Residents help Team Rubicon's disaster response team unload aid at the airport from a US Army helicopter to take to the hospital where the team is treating residents injured in the 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Les Cayes, Haiti, Thursday, August 19, 2021.  © 2021 AP Photo/Fernando Llano

(Washington DC) – The Haitian government and donors need to heed lessons learned from failures in previous disasters in responding to the August 14, 2021 earthquake, to ensure that women, girls, and other marginalized groups can get the care they need, Human Rights Watch said today. The humanitarian response should respect human rights principles and standards, including for transparency, accountability, participation, and nondiscrimination.

According to United Nations’ assessments, the August 14 disaster has affected more than 2 million people, killed more than 2,000, and injured more than 12,000. A week into the response efforts, the Ministry of Public Health identified significant medical needs, including for medical personnel, medicines, and supplies, and financial and logistical resources to carry out operations. It has also flagged the need to address the Covid-19 response in the area concurrently.

“The basic medical needs are so great that there is a risk that respect for human rights will be seen as an optional, unaffordable luxury, but we’ve been down that road before, and it left women and girls open to violence, abuse, and preventable deaths,” said Amanda Klasing, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Given the vast knowledge of what went wrong, it would be intolerable and inhumane to once again forget and ignore human rights in this response effort.”

Human Rights Watch research in 2010 and 2011 demonstrated that the humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake did not include adequate safety and health measures to reduce risk to women and girls. Instead, the effort failed to address their needs and rights, including for reproductive and maternal care. In some instances, lack of food security and gender focus in aid distribution led to hunger, and some women reported trading sex for food. Lack of safe conditions in the camps exacerbated the impact of sexual violence, while it was nearly impossible to get post-rape care.

The areas hit by the August 14 earthquake are already underserved by medical facilities. The World Health Organization estimates that 4 health facilities were destroyed, and 32 damaged. Thousands of injured people still need immediate care. Women and girls need contraception and post-rape services and those who are pregnant need prenatal, obstetric, and emergency obstetric care.

This latest disaster comes nearly six weeks after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Haitian civil society is concerned that the disaster will distract from the important calls for accountability and broad participation in resolving the political crisis. Instead, the significant pressures created by the disaster make it more important than ever for Haitian authorities, with the support of the international community and a diverse cross-section of civil society, to take rights-respecting steps to help stop the violence, hold those responsible to account, and resolve the ongoing institutional crisis.

To avoid the risk of increased gender-based violence seen after the 2010 earthquake, the government, donors, and aid agencies should adopt clear gender strategies for their response efforts. They should disaggregate all data by gender and other marginalized statuses, have gender-specific metrics and enable the full participation of women and girls in decision-making and recovery efforts, Human Rights Watch said.

In the immediate term, organizations providing services to displaced people should immediately appoint protection officers, segregate toilet and bathing facilities by gender, and ensure adequate lighting. The authorities should establish and widely publicize clear and accurate referral pathways for people at risk or victims of gender-based violence.

After the 2010 earthquake, only US$118.4 million of the $258 million pledged to health care had been disbursed within 18 months, leaving devastating gaps in care for the most marginalized people, including pregnant women and girls. Donor governments should not only support Haiti with pledges but provide transparency for when and how the money is disbursed and prioritize health funding to ensure that organizations providing lifesaving care have immediate access to support.

Humanitarian aid should be distributed apolitically, without discrimination, and in compliance with humanitarian principles. Donors and aid organizations should provide timely and clear information about disbursement of funds and metrics on service delivery, disaggregated by gender and other marginalized statuses. Likewise, the Haitian government should provide transparent reporting on its response and coordination efforts.

Aid agencies should ensure that everyone has access to information about what services are available and where, connecting them with transportation and ensure that no woman or girl is turned away from reproductive health services for inability to pay. Response efforts should include providing adequate personal protective equipment to all aid workers – international and local – as well as widespread access to Covid-19 testing.

A current food security assessment has not been completed. However, Haitian civil society organizations warn that food insecurity is a significant risk. The World Health Organization has reported that a water and sanitation assessment is under way. For decades, lack of access to clean water and sanitation directly affected the health, the education, and even the risk of violence or death of women and girls in Haiti. The assessment should include a rights-based analysis of access and security and ensure that everyone has sufficient and safe water to combat Covid-19, cholera, and other communicable diseases.

The 2010 earthquake response was marked by a disastrous lack of coordination and data sharing by donors and nongovernmental organizations providing health services. Human rights monitors and the Haitian government were unable to assess progress toward meeting health needs. This time, to the greatest extent possible, money should be disbursed directly to Haiti-based, Haitian-led organizations that have long-term experience and commitment to the country. Aid that is not rights-based will not contribute to a sustainable health system, including attention to marginalized populations, like women and girls.

The government, donors, and aid agencies should work closely with local human rights organizations to adopt strategies and approaches that respect human rights principles and enable civil society to monitor the recovery, Human Rights Watch said.

“Haitians’ rights need to be fully respected in the response to the earthquake,” Klasing said. “Donors need to work with the government and local nongovernmental organizations to ensure effective oversight of the process and that everyone can get the services, protection, and respect for their rights they need.”

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