Speaking of Women's Rights: Helping Haiti: help its women

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Helping Haiti: help its women

It’s been hard to focus on day-to-day work this week: our minds are continually shifting to the havoc and devastation in Haiti. With all the good will in the world (actual as well as metaphorical) and even with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid promised, the prospects for recovery are gloomy and distant.

Of course, first you have to define “recovery”. The soul-shattering poverty, massive corruption and virtually non-existent infrastructure are just the most obvious barriers. When you consider that the UN, in the form of both peacekeepers and aid workers, has had a large presence in the country for many years, yet the situation remained so very stubbornly resistant to improvement, it’s difficult to summon much optimism about the next few years.

Now, I don't pretend to have expertise, or even deep knowledge, in international affairs, but I can’t help believing that we need a strong voice throughout our country to demand that the principles underlying the eloquent analyses of Nicholas Kristof (due credit also to his co-author and wife, Sheryl WuDunn) should be brought to bear from the outset as the world works to bring not just order, but progress and strength to the people and economy of Haiti. Let’s put the well-being of women and their families front and center as a plan is crafted, and make sure that principle permeates the rebuilding (face it, it’s building more than rebuilding) effort.

We know, as Kristof and WuDunn and many other scholars and thinkers have shown, that when women’s and girls’ fundamental rights are protected, when they are safe, educated, have economic security, and can choose when to have children, the well-being of everyone in a country, and the stability of the country itself, improve. That’s why the NoVo Foundation, in partnership with the Nike Foundation (no, that’s not a typo) launched “The Girl Effect” last year. They want to spread the word about the profound impact that making girls’ lives better has on a country, a society, and the world.

Yet I suspect most people in this country think about countries with patriarchal societies and “documented” oppression of women when this subject comes up. If starvation, no access to family planning and homelessness are not oppression, we need to have a conversation about what oppression really is.

I’m not underestimating the magnitude of the work ahead in Haiti, though I am sure I do not fully understand it. But it’s an idea, a chance, a straw at which to grasp as we look mournfully at (or away from) those haunting pictures of the Haitian people struggling to stay alive.