When we think of disasters, such as Hurricane Matthew that battered Haiti in the fall of 2016, the images that often come to our minds are of flattened houses, destroyed infrastructure, fleeing families and hungry people. The suffering is clear and public.
What we don't see is the amount of sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls that follows nearly every disaster because of the additional stress placed on families.
While it rarely makes the news, nearly every disaster is followed by a striking uptick in violence, usually hidden, usually private, and directed against women and children.
This is true around the world. In the United States, a study of 420 Hurricane Katrina survivors in Mississippi indicated that sexual and gender-based violence increased by four-fold after the disaster. According to research reported in Women, Gender and Disaster, similar results have been found in countries where post-disaster violence has been studied, including Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka.
In Haiti, MCC is working with Solidarity Fanm Ayisyèn (SOFA), Haiti’s leading women’s rights organization, to help women displaced by Hurricane Matthew.
This project is one of many that MCC is doing to support hurricane recovery, using donations of almost $1 million. Other projects include primary school reconstruction, garden revitalization, rehabilitation of cholera treatment centers and latrine construction.
One of those women is Caudette Joseph. Her mother and father died while she was young, and she was not able to attend school. She made her way on the streets of Port-au-Prince until an older man promised he would take care of her. But eventually, she found herself beaten and abandoned with their three-year old son.
She managed to piece together a fragile subsistence, finding a makeshift place to live with her child. But when Hurricane Matthew struck, it ripped off the roof of her home in Matisan, leaving her, her son and all their possessions, exposed to the torrential rains.
After losing everything again, Joseph sought shelter and help with the only person she knew in the area – her son’s father. She reasoned that his legal obligation would lead him to help his son. Surely she thought, he would allow them a dry place to sleep. Once again, her trust was betrayed. Caudette and her son ended up beaten and bleeding back on the street.
Unable to even buy food, her son became malnourished. So Joseph sent him to live with a relative, who was living in a temporary shelter herself since the hurricane. She reasoned that this would at least allow her son to eat again.
When an acquaintance in the neighborhood heard about Joseph’s situation, she brought Joseph to SOFA’s drop-in center in nearby Bwa Vèna. The center provides wrap-around medical, legal and vocational support as well as psychological care to women who have survived sexual and gender-based violence.
Advocating for women and girls
Joseph was among many women who looked for help from SOFA, whose centers, staff and volunteers were overwhelmed with the flood of new cases. In a southern Port-au-Prince center, which serves crowded slums that accepted tens of thousands of migrants fleeing the devastation, the number of cases of sexual and gender-based violence increased by 293 percent.
We already supported SOFA’s advocacy, public awareness and trainings, so when SOFA's increased need became apparent, we designated hurricane donations to support SOFA’s wrap-around services for 300 women. In addition, MCC helped SOFA offer a livelihood program that provides microcredit or helps women go back to school.
In the town of Bomon in Southern Haiti, MCC is funding the rebuilding of SOFA’s center which serves 150 women. And in rural Sen Michel, 80 survivors will get MCC-supported help to rebuild their gardens and replenish livestock lost in the hurricane.
With SOFA’s services, Joseph is now getting the help she needs. She is looking forward to setting up a small business, and with this new start, hopes to be able to put aside savings to be able to enroll her son in school in the fall and to find a new place to live.
“SOFA has already done so much to help me,” says Joseph. “Thanks to SOFA, I can feed my son again, and I found the courage to seek justice and go before a judge to plead my case. I have regained my dignity and my hope.”
Paul Shetler Fast is an MCC Haiti representative together with his wife Rebecca Shetler Fast.