Distributing dignity: a safe space for women after the storm

تم النشر: 31 أغسطس 2012 15:03 CET

Lying in the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, tucked away beside a potholed side-road just off the heavily policed - and infamously insecure - highway 9, the camp of Fondation Zami Timaun is home to around 200 families.

An unremarkable place by the standards of Port-au-Prince’s numerous camps, Fondation Zami Timaun was no ‘tent city’, just an average camp where people live day-to-day and struggle to get by.

But thanks to its low lying and exposed position, in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Isaac, Fondation Zami Timaun finally found some unwanted recognition – as one of the camps worst affected by the wind and rain.

Four days after the storm, fragile tents are still inundated with a thick coat of clay-like mud; mothers and children are sleeping in nearly six inches of mud, their mattresses and few possessions buried, their tents reduced to ragged shelters. Mud-streaked toddlers and children wander through the remains of the community, staring with disbelief at the loss of the structures they previously called home.

With its location rubbing up against the neglected and volatile Cite de Soleil, a place most aid agencies consider off-limits, Fondation Zami Timaun has been largely left to its own devices for more than two and half years.

As a result, women here have been particularly neglected. Their power has been lost by virtue of their gender, and women obtain few opportunities to meet and benefit from each other’s knowledge, companionship and strength. Deprived of safe spaces to meet - such as schools, shops and clinics that most of us take for granted - many have been compelled to turn inward, pushed beyond their psychological and physical limits.

Against this background, teams from the Haitian Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) visited Cite Soleil the day after the storm, and realised that in a camp so affected by the dynamics of violence and poverty, any attempt to help the most vulnerable with any relief distribution would mean engaging with the entire community and the camp’s female residents in particular.

During the planning stage, agreement was reached that women will be given priority for receiving relief items, and that the distribution site will function as a ‘Safe Space’, an opportunity for the women of the camp to gather and speak freely amongst themselves without fear.

While most emergency distributions are judged on speed and volume, this is one where the time and attention people receive will be the measure of success.

On the day of the distribution, Daniel Louise Marie, an IFRC hygiene promotion supervisor, was asked to lead her all female team in distributing hygiene kits – packs containing female sanitary items and undergarments - as well as wood beams and tarpaulins.

For Daniel, a veteran of many Red Cross operations, it is easy to empathize with the frustrations of the women in the community.

“We made this space for women,” she explains. “Men have a more dominating presence, and sometimes create a barrier for women to speak up. The women we gave items to said they felt more comfortable, especially when we helped them place the relief items on their heads to carry. They looked up at us and smiled, they saw we could do exactly what a man could do.”

The elderly women are particularly happy to participate in a distribution managed and staffed by women, she adds.

Stephanie Etienne, the Haitian Red Cross’ violence prevention officer, was also on site, charged with personally greeting each of the women in line and sharing vital information about personal protection.

For Stephanie, her role in the distribution at Fondation Zami Timaun is just the start of more concerted efforts to protect vulnerable women and promote their inclusion in the ongoing recovery efforts. On the same day as Stephanie was giving out protection advice, the President of the Haitian Red Cross was signing off on a Memorandum of Understanding with the IFRC to expand violence prevention and response activities in Haiti.

The ‘Kote Trankil’, which translates as “safe space”, project sits hand-in-hand with the IFRC’s Integrated Neighbourhood Approach (INA) to assisting earthquake affected areas of Port-au-Prince. INA has incorporated violence prevention activities into its overall programming to help ensure that safe spaces for women and young people are preserved and fostered, and opportunities for learning and jobs are open to them.

For today though, in Fondation Zami Timaun, 28-year-old Vanite Dora is heading back to rebuild her shelter with the items she has just received from the Haitian Red Cross. “Having women manage everything was good,” she says. “When men are there they get angry, it gets noisy. This was calm, I feel proud.”