With few resources, Haiti's women and children at a disadvantage
Thursday, January 28, 2010
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- The labor pains started before dawn. Marie Delise sat up on the thin blanket she was sleeping on in the middle of a street and shook her husband awake. It was time.
For two hours, they walked through dark streets filled with people who, like them, had been made homeless by the earthquake. They paused each time she had a contraction.
At the main hospital gate, now guarded by U.S. troops, Delise held on to her husband, Gregory Presmy, as they walked into a courtyard filled with female patients lying on beds. Tarps fastened with rope and string shielded the women and their newborns from the elements. Handwritten notes taped to the edges of beds revealed each patient's name and vital signs. This was the maternity ward, post-earthquake.
Delise was soon taken inside the hospital, which had no electricity or running water, to give birth. Haitian American nurses -- volunteers from New York -- created a delivery room with donated supplies. Then the earth shook, one of the many aftershocks since the Jan. 12 temblor.
Greleyon Presmy was born shortly after 6 a.m. into devastation and desperation, a new life among thousands of dead.
"I hope that he becomes a good man, a great man who will grow up to help the country," said Delise, gazing at her son, swaddled in blankets and wearing a tiny knit cap.
Those high hopes face serious challenges as health and safety conditions in the capital city worsen, putting Haitian women and children at particular risk for disease and sexual exploitation.
Reports show that violence against women and girls was already common in Haiti before the earthquake. In a 2006 study by the Inter-American Development Bank, one-third of women and girls said they had suffered physical or sexual violence, and more than half of those were younger than 18.
"We have to keep in mind that disasters make existing inequalities even worse," said Marijke Velzeboer-Salcedo, an expert on gender issues for the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization. "Those who are stronger and more powerful, whether physically or psychosocially -- or both -- are going to have better access to scarce resources. But when women are deprived of resources, entire families are likely to be deprived, too."
About 37,000 pregnant women affected by the earthquake are in desperate need of food, clean drinking water and access to health care, said Franck Geneus, who directs health programs in Haiti for CARE, an Atlanta-based nonprofit group that helps women and children around the world. As many as 10,000 of the women could give birth in the next month.
Workers in the battered town of Leogane carefully planned the distribution of hygiene kits by first sending in an assessment team and coordinating with local leaders to ensure that the neediest women would be helped, officials said. The goal is to prevent the aid from ending up in the hands of people who try to sell it or force women to trade sexual favors for food and supplies.
Still, even with security, it has been difficult for most women and children to get help. At an aid point in downtown Port-au-Prince near the collapsed presidential palace, throngs of men crowded around a doorway and fought with one other while Haitian police beat them back with sticks and batons.