Reconstructing Haiti with Women & Girls at the Center

By Tunisia L. Riley*

On May 4, 2010 I sat in a packed room of women (and a few men) coming together to raise awareness of women and girls efforts in the reconstruction of Haiti after the devastating January 12, 2010 earthquake and its aftershocks. While Haiti has subsided from the headlines of most mainstream media, this assembly of women, which included women from all parts of the African Diaspora, proves Haiti is still on our minds and in our hearts. But the major recurring question of the evening was, now what? What does this room, packed to capacity, full of progressively minded individuals do when we leave here? The forum, with its panel and audience sought to answer that.

The panel, moderated by Maria Hinojosa (President of Futuro Media) included: Nancy Dorsinville (Senior Policy Advisor of UN Office of the Special Envoy to Haiti); Taina Bien-Aimé (Executive Director of Equality Now); and Alice Backer, Esq. (Member of PotoFanm + Fi)

Dorsinville seemed to represent the UN at this panel and sadly took a lot of heat from another panelist as the UN’s representative; however, Dorsinville seemed to identify herself more as a Haitian woman working with the UN to rebuild Haiti. She shed light on the efforts that have been made by women in Haiti even though they may not be at the planning table AND she also noted the progress and processes that are taking place in Haiti. There’s now a Domestic Violence hotline through the Police Department. However, she also noted there’s a need for people to train the police on how to adequately accommodate the new hotline with sensitivity.

Bien-Aimé, was born in New York, raised in Europe and is the child of Haitian parents. Her interest in Haiti is focused on women’s rights. She described Haiti, 4 months after the earthquake, in dismay when she spoke of the 1000s of families living in low-quality tents in 95 degree weather. How do these living conditions affect child and maternal health? She met with 15 women’s organizations and recounted many women accusing the UN of ignoring them in Haiti’s reconstruction. In her opinion, there needs to be more people activated at the grassroots level BEFORE getting to UN. Lastly, she brought to light the UN numbers reporting the high numbers of women and girls who reported sexual & domestic violence prior to the earthquake, pointing to a further need for government accountability to its women as a result of systems of patriarchy that gravely impact Haiti’s women & girls.

Backer, a Haitian American, was very adamant in the use of technology, social media, Skype, and cell phones in bringing Haitian women & girls’ stories to light. She also offered PotoFanm +Fi, and other Haitian women’s organizations as a hub in amplifying the voices of women in efforts of reconstructing Haiti.

Questions from the audience included: What are the specific women’s issues in Haiti? And how do we get Haitian women of various socio-economic backgrounds on one platform? But the question that moved me the most came from Madeline Lamour Holder (Associate Director of Individual Giving for NY Women’s Foundation) when she asked: “who do we tell our stories to? Who do we (Haitian women) trust?” As a Black feminist, the thought of “the personal is political” always comes to the forefront of my mind, especially when it comes to women and girls telling their stories. There is power and importance in giving voice to problems long kept in the dark as a result of pride, patriarchy, and culture. Only when we see the problem as a problem can we provide solutions.

In the end, I left the panel discussion pondering the negative effects of patriarchy and colonialism on former colonies. The two seem to walk hand in hand when considering the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake. Nancy Dorsinville ended the night by saying “we’re all advocates…[but] as we facebook, tweet, LinkIn, [remember] the women impacted [by these efforts] aren’t in those spaces BUT will be impacted.”

Essentially, it is up to us to utilize whatever means available to us to help those who we may never even see or meet. One way to do so is to join or align yourself with an organization that is working with Haiti.

Forum Co-Sponsors/Organizations to contact for more information on ways you may help(many of these organizations are also on twitter and facebook):

* Tunisia L. Riley currently volunteers with NCRW in their Communications Department. She holds a BA in English and Women’s Studies from the College of William & Mary and an MA in Women’s Studies from the University of South Florida. Her interests are on Black women’s use of creative expression as a means of healing, empowerment, and activism. She believes “when we tell our stories, we empower those around us to agitate injustice, inspire change, and create activism.” Tunisia currently serves as the incoming editor of Under the Microscope, a site for women and girls in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to tell their stories. Under the Microscope is for, by, and about women in STEM. Consider submitting your story today!

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As schools open for the new academic year in Haiti, the hope is to bring all boys and girls to school, those who attended before the earthquake struck in January 2010, and those hardest to reach, who will go to school for the first time.

In the most recent addition to the ‘Beyond School Books’ podcast series, UNICEF Radio podcast moderator Amy Costello spoke with Judith Bruce, Senior Associate and Policy Analyst with the Population Council’s Poverty, Gender, and Youth program, and Michelle Trombley, UNICEF’s Gender-Based Violence Specialist in Haiti, about the situation for adolescent girls in Haiti, both in camps and at school.

Please visit to listen to the podcast.