Our Ladies of Haiti: A Year after an Earthquake Killed More Than 230,000, Haiti Rebuilds Its Communities on a Strong Foundation: The Country's Brave and Faithful Women

Article excerpt

To get to her house, Marie Josil walks through a blue tarp camp, where hundreds of makeshift shelters after the January 12, 2010 earthquake tumbled their Where the tent city ends, the cinderblock neighborhood begins.

Her house, a two-room concrete building crammed between a pile of rubble and home, smells of sewage. But she doesn't notice. This is how it's always been.

Josil doesn't live here anymore. The earthquake ruptured a water line she can't fix, and her quarters are in ankle-deep water. She's but one of some 1.3 million Haitians year after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the island nation.

More than 230,000 Haitians lost their lives in the 30-second quake, many crushed to death by the concrete that used to protect them from hurricanes. Josil, like her peers, set up a place for herself in the field next to her neighborhood.

While hundreds of thousands have been displaced to the rural areas, many subsist in Port-au-Prince. With an estimated population topping 3 million, it's by far the country's largest city. Economic opportunities have kept many from fleeing the overpopulated capital for years.

Women face their own challenges as Haiti rebuilds. In urban and rural areas, it is the women who raise the children. But in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, where 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, women also work to feed their hungry children.

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Work keeps Josil in Port-au-Prince. She sells coffee, bread, and peanut butter sandwiches at factories. In June she started working in a Catholic Relief Services (CRS) cash for-work program, which offers Haitians minimum wage for work that helps the recovery process. Josil, a widow with five children, uses the mortar skills she learned while fixing her own house. "I will work because I'm a tough woman," she says. "I'm not lazy. I'm not afraid of my body," a Haitian expression meaning she's willing to work. "Life is hard, generally, but we're in the hands of God."

There are a lot of tough women in Haiti. Bette Gebrian, director of public health for Haitian Health Foundation in rural Jeremie and a registered nurse with a doctorate in medical anthropology, says Haitian culture relies on women as the "holders of the fabric of society."

"When a father dies, they wear a little black button for a while," she explains. "When a mother dies, everything stops."

Women and children are more affected by disasters or emergencies, according to Nicole Balliette, Haiti earthquake response coordinator with CRS. "Those people who were most vulnerable to begin with--women and children--their lives will be that much more difficult."

Studies indicate that, as a general rule, almost all of a woman's income is spent on her family. CRS handled food distribution at the camp on the Petionville golf course--one of the largest with more than 50,000 residents at its height--and made sure to give food vouchers to women.

"You attempt to target the mother because you've got a little greater probability that women are going to take whatever assistance it is and use it to benefit their children and other members of their household," Balliette says.

Camp life exemplifies Haiti's challenges. Residents aren't always surrounded by the same neighbors they've had for years. They don't look out for each other as they once did, Balliette says.

The tents provide little protection, and husbands are often gone most of the day looking for work. Domestic violence and rape have escalated since the earthquake, in large part due to camp life.

"Women's capacity to participate in reconstruction and in child-rearing is encumbered by the lack of security," Francisca Vigaund-Walsh of Catholic Relief Services says. "The security in the camps is still abysmal, evidenced by the rate of rape. There are reports of some camps where police patrols do not enter. …