In Haiti, one year after its devastating earthquake, UN Women is working side by side with national counterparts to stop violence against women, expand women’s economic options and increase space for women to participate in decisions that affect them. The head of UN Women in Haiti, Sheelagh Kathy Mangones, shares an update.
What UN Women activities have been most successful since the earthquake?
After the earthquake, we immediately teamed up with women’s organizations and the Government to train more than 100 young men and women so that they could go into 70 temporary settlements and raise awareness about the vulnerability of women and girls to violence. Survivors of violence were able to tell their stories. They were assisted in going to women’s organizations where they could access medical, legal and psychosocial services, and begin rebuilding their lives and confidence. We also were able to help reestablish a safe haven for young girls who have experienced violence. And we are about to open two new safe houses for women in the north and southeast regions.
We will expand much of this work in 2011. An important new measure will be tracking the incidence of sexual and gender-based violence. Right now, we have very little data on this. We know that large-scale disasters generally increase risks for women, but we need to be able to show exactly what is happening so that we can work with national partners on coming up with the best ways to stop it.
What are the top priorities for women and girls in Haiti today?
The earthquake deepened gaps in gender equality and women’s empowerment. Many of these are related to structural obstacles, such as attitudes and institutions that prevent progress for women. To really achieve change, we need to have a long-term vision that removes these obstacles.
One key issue is increasing women’s voice, certainly in political processes, but also more broadly at the community level, and in civil society and professional organizations. Women must be able to contribute their perspectives to national debates on priorities now and in the coming years. Haiti already has made advances in this area, and has many strong, vibrant women’s organizations. So there is much to build on, but more must be done.
A second critical area is economic development. Forty-two percent of households are now headed by women. We need to support and sustain their livelihoods, such as by recapitalizing microenterprises, or encouraging women in nontraditional jobs such as construction, among other issues. Ending violence against women is another priority, both prevention measures to change attitudes and behaviours, and protection for women survivors to recover and seek justice.
Why is building on national capacities so important?
People are the motor of change. We need to listen to them and recognize the capacities that they have, because these are the starting point for recovery. It is an extraordinarily empowering message to say that everyone has some capacity and value. Otherwise, when you assume that there is no capacity, you can end up marginalizing people, or re-inventing the wheel, or undermining the ability of people to step up and move forward.
Over the past year, we have really worked with national partners to help them strengthen capacities for actions to achieve gender equality. We have urged international partners to recognize that Haiti has a history of gender advocacy and achievements that can be further developed, such as a national action plan for stopping gender-based violence and a set of protocols for responding to survivors.
Haiti recently had an election. Looking forward, how do you see UN Women supporting women’s political participation?
Our experience in Haiti is that women increasingly want to participate in various types of decision-making, including through formal political processes. They want their voices to be heard. Before the 2009 elections, we began supporting a coalition of women’s organizations that trained women candidates from a variety of political positions on the skills needed to run successfully for office, and to respond to gender equality issues once they are in office. We will be doing more of that, including to assist the growing number of women interested in politics at the local level. Since local elections may take place in the next year or so, there will be a strong push for their participation at that level.
Do you feel hopeful about the future in Haiti?
Yes. Because I believe in the capacities and vision of Haitian women and men, and the extraordinary hope of Haitian boys and girls. As UN Women, we can support them in moving forward, closer to their dreams.
I think that we have an extraordinary opportunity with UN Women to scale up the work we do, in Haiti and globally. In creating UN Women, UN Member States have recognized that gender equality and women’s empowerment are critical to all the development goals we want to reach. In Haiti, 2011 will be a year of challenges, but through UN Women we will also be sending the message that women and girls are not alone, and we will do much more to magnify their voices and advance their rights.
What can people in other parts of the world do to help?
The important thing is to remain engaged and in solidarity with the women and people of Haiti. People elsewhere can remind their governments, particularly those supporting the reconstruction efforts, that we must make achieving gender equality a key part of everything we do, whether the issue is providing medical services, creating jobs, or enacting security measures.
Gender equality is not something we can put off until later, because women are at the forefront of any humanitarian disaster. They play key roles in ensuring the survival of families, rebuilding communities, and providing food and health care. It is not optional to empower women. It is essential.