PHILADELPHIA — In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, many people are suffering. But women and girls, inevitably, will be hardest hit. In Haiti, as in many countries, women are the poorest of the poor. They have no safety net and are often most vulnerable to homelessness, hunger and sexual violence. Women also are overwhelmingly responsible for other vulnerable people, including children, the elderly, and the ill and disabled.
Soroptimist International of the Americas (SIA), a volunteer organization for business and professional women working to improve the lives of women and girls in local communities and throughout the world, understands from experience that women are disproportionately impacted in the wake of disasters due to existing gender inequalities.
“There are complex aspects of disasters that don’t apply equally to women and men, including the reconstruction process following disasters,” said Leigh Wintz, SIA’s executive director. “When aid is given to ‘heads of households,’ women-headed families may be ignored. In addition, women need housing, safety, health care, and especially earning opportunities so they are not lured into prostitution or trafficking in order to survive. They also desperately need protection from sexual violence and abuse in the aftermath of a disaster.”
Without money or other resources, displaced women and girls may be compelled to submit to sex in return for safe passage, food, shelter and other resources. Camps for internally displaced or refugee women also offer limited protection from sexual violence.
Soroptimist has tackled the issue of women’s needs in the aftermath of disasters on a few fronts. “Reaching Out to Women When Disaster Strikes,” a Soroptimist white paper, addresses women’s specific vulnerabilities post-disaster due to existing economic, political and cultural conditions that impact them more severely. The white paper is available at http://www.soroptimist.org/whitepapers/wp_disaster.html.
Soroptimist also maintains a Disaster Recovery Fund, a grant program designed to assist women and girls who have been victims of natural disasters or acts of war. Some funds are used to provide immediate assistance, but the majority are used for longer-term recovery projects. Some projects have included 9/11 Disaster Recovery, in which Soroptimist sent $84,000 to four domestic violence agencies in Lower Manhattan following the 2001 terrorist attacks.
In response to the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Asia, Soroptimist donated $10,000 to the United Nations Population Fund to help meet the urgent health, hygiene and protection needs of women in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Maldives. Funds were used to provide women with obstetric care and access to basic services including water, sanitation and food, as well as support services following incidences of violence. Soroptimist contributed an additional $102,000 to several projects that helped include women and girls in the planning and implementation of resettlement and reconstruction efforts.
Because Haiti is part of Soroptimist’s European federation, SIA recently made a donation of $10,000 to Soroptimist International of Europe to support immediate disaster relief efforts for women and girls.
“Soroptimist Disaster Recovery Fund monies will be used to support projects to help women and girls in that decimated country to recover,” Wintz said. “It’s vital that women have not only the services they so desperately need, but that they take a central role in reconstructing their communities. As caretakers, women know where families live, which households have sick members or new babies, and best how to reach remote communities. It is also critical to create and strengthen employment opportunities for women so they do not fall prey to prostitution or trafficking.”
In the wake of a disaster, women and girls are especially at risk for prostitution and trafficking in order to survive. Soroptimist believes the issue is global and systemic, and deserves ongoing awareness and action. Cathy Standiford, the president of SIA’s Board of Directors, recently appeared on CNN’s “Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell: Reality of the Sex Trade in the U.S” and addressed Soroptimist’s work concerning the sex trafficking of women and girls into prostitution. The segment can be viewed at http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/bestoftv/2010/01/15/jvm.teens.sold.for.sex.cnn?iref=allsearch.
“Raising awareness is really, really important,” she told CNN’s audience. “And our members throughout the United States and the other 18 countries in our organization are raising awareness. We’re also doing some things to try to assist victims: by providing women and vulnerable girls with educational opportunities and economic opportunities so that they’re not as likely to be lured into trafficking.”
Soroptimist urges those concerned about conditions for women and girls in Haiti to lobby relief organizations and national governments to target efforts toward this vulnerable group.
Headquartered in Philadelphia, Soroptimist offers programs that improve the lives of women and girls through three distinct platforms: economic empowerment, elimination of violence, and gender equality. Its major program, the Soroptimist Women’s Opportunity Awards, provides cash grants for women seeking to improve their lives with the help of additional education and training. Each year, more than $1.5 million is disbursed to deserving women through this award-winning program. Soroptimist, a 501(c)(3) organization that relies on charitable donations to support its programs, also sponsors the Live Your Dream campaign in recognition of the power of women and their dreams. Visit the campaign’s online home at: http://www.LiveYourDreamCampaign.org.
Visit http://www.soroptimist.org/donate/donate.html to make a donation to the Soroptimist Disaster Recovery Fund. Funds earmarked for Haiti will be used for post-disaster efforts to help Haiti’s women and girls in long-term, sustainable ways.