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The earthquake and beyond: 4 crises for girls in Haiti

By Jessica Souza

1. Disaster on top of disaster

Let’s start with the most recent: the magnitude 7.2 earthquake that hit southwest Haiti on Saturday, August 14. So far, over 1,900 people have been confirmed dead (though the death toll is expected to keep climbing) and thousands are injured. Homes, schools, markets, churches and hospitals have been flattened. The quake triggered landslides, which destroyed roads and bridges, making it extremely difficult for rescue crews to travel and deliver supplies.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because 11 years ago another major earthquake struck Haiti, killing 220,000 people and displacing more than a million. Located on a fault line between the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates, Haiti’s earthquakes are catastrophic for many reasons, one of which is that many buildings are built to withstand hurricanes, instead of quakes.

A house destroyed by the earthquake in Haiti

 

And speaking of hurricanes, Tropical Storm Grace hit Haiti just days after the earthquake, bringing high winds, heavy rain and flooding. Relief workers and doctors were rushing to save as many people as they could before the powerful storm arrived.

What do these disasters have to do with girls?

Plan’s research shows that adolescent girls are one of the most at-risk groups when disasters strike. With their homes destroyed, girls in Haiti are left with little protection from violence, exploitation and abuse (all which increase during crises). And child traffickers thrive in the chaos of emergencies, targeting vulnerable girls and children who are separated from their families or desperate for opportunities.

 

2. Political insecurity and gender-based violence

Just a few weeks ago, Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated in his home. His murder sparked even more political instability than usual — the last thing the country needed while already dealing with a significant surge in violence.

Violence is a very real threat to girls and women in Haiti. In fact, thousands of women and children in Port-au-Prince have been displaced because of gang violence this summer. Criminal organizations run entire neighborhoods of the city.

Gender-based violence spiked drastically in 2020 during lockdowns, and it was already shockingly high in Haiti to begin with (it’s been reported that one in three Haitian women have experienced gender-based violence). And those are just the assaults that are reported — many more go unreported because women and girls fear being stigmatized, and because seeking justice is challenging, even though rape was formally criminalized in 2005.

Chrisderlie told Plan she hopes Haiti will have more security “so we can walk without anxiety”.

Chrisderlie told Plan she hopes Haiti will have more security “so we can walk without anxiety.”

 

3. COVID-19 and lack of access to health care

The pandemic had a slow start in Haiti, but that seems to be changing. Cases started to surge in May, and some patients have had to be transported to other countries since Haiti doesn’t have the facilities for advanced treatment.

But the vaccine finally arrived in July, making Haiti one of the last countries in the world to get it. The rollout has started, first with health care workers and people over 65 years old.

Girls are always disproportionately affected by emergencies, and COVID-19 is no different. Besides being more at risk for violence and never returning to school, girls also are losing critical access to health care. They’re unable to get the resources and information they need to meet their unique health needs — like when they start their period and need menstrual supplies, if they’re sexually assaulted or if they’re having an early pregnancy, which can be life-threatening.  

The earthquake just made access to health care even more difficult. Hospitals and clinics in the western region have been destroyed. There are just a few doctors and only one surgeon in the entire area, and they’re now faced with treating thousands of patients in collapsed buildings, makeshift operating rooms and parking lots.

In this chaos, where can you go if you have COVID-19 symptoms, or if you’re an adolescent girl in desperate need of a clinic appointment?

  

4. Poverty and hunger

About 60% of Haitians live in poverty and more than 24% live in extreme poverty. It’s the lowest-income country in the Western hemisphere. The reasons for Haiti’s poverty are complex, but its history of exploitation from other countries is a big part of it.

Many households in Haiti are women-led, meaning they’re responsible for providing for their families. That’s difficult when gender discrimination keeps you from working; many women in Haiti work in the informal sector, and they have a 20% higher chance of being unemployed, according to a 2016 World Bank report.

Poverty affects girls and women in unique ways, like if they can’t afford menstrual pads, they have to resort to using unhygienic materials (like rags or leaves) and are likely to miss school. When you miss a few days every month, it’s easy to fall behind.

And of course, poverty leads to hunger. Last year, the Global Hunger Index measured hunger in Haiti and gave it a score of 33.5 — much higher than the global average of 18.2. This made Haiti the hungriest country in the Americas and the fourth hungriest in the world (after Chad, Timor-Leste and Madagascar). Though food security in Haiti has been improving over the past two decades, it’s still a dire situation.

A young girl in Haiti is screened for malnutrition through a Plan program.

A young girl in Haiti is screened for malnutrition through a Plan program.

 

Plan is urgently working to assess the needs of children in Haiti who have been impacted by this recent earthquake, and we are on standby, ready to provide support. 

Our experience shows that when girls and young women are engaged in disaster response, communities recover more quickly. We’re aiming to lend that knowledge to partners on the ground in Haiti, ensuring support reaches the people who need it most and makes a true impact. Based on what we learned from global responses to Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, Plan is properly assessing the immediate needs of the communities and intending to coordinate with organizations that can help us effectively respond.

To move forward, we need your support now. Can children in Haiti count on your compassion? 

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