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A Year after the Earthquake, Haiti Struggles to Provide Reproductive Health Care

One year after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, efforts to protect women living in the aftermath of the disaster from unintended pregnancy, HIV infection, and especially sexual violence have fallen devastatingly short. Though governments, relief organizations, and individuals have collectively donated huge sums of money toward Haiti’s recovery, more than one million people remain without homes and are forced to live in the country’s 1,199 internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.[1] Many of the women and girls among these “tent cities” face constant fear of sexual assault, according to two recent reports detailing the gender-based violence epidemic in post-earthquake Haiti: Aftershocks: Women Speak Out against Sexual Violence in Haiti’s Camps, by Amnesty International, and Our Bodies Are Still Trembling: Haitian Women Continue to Fight against Rape, a collaboration among MADRE, the City University of New York School of Law, and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.
Anyone living within the IDP camps faces grim conditions and a negligence of the most basic of services. For example, the recent cholera epidemic that killed at least 2,760 people resulted from a lack of sewage collection and treatment in these makeshift communities.[2] However, circumstances make the women living in these camps especially vulnerable to the threat of sexual assault. MADRE, in its report, writes that the absence of a reliable police force; the lack of substantial light sources that renders latrines and pathways unsafe after dark; and the breakdown of community ties and social order, together with a number of other factors, create “a perfect storm of sexual violence.”[3] “It’s an ideal climate for rape,” said Malya Villard, director of Kofaviv, a grassroots organization in Haiti that supports rape victims.[4]
Even before the earthquake, which killed at least 316,000 people and affected some 2.5 million more, Haiti was the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, with dismal reproductive health conditions. A 2009 report by the John Snow, Inc. Research & Training Institute showed Haiti’s neonatal and maternal mortality rates to be among the highest in the world, and the New York Times, also in 2009, wrote, “Haiti represents lost momentum for family planning efforts worldwide.”[5] And just as the effects of the earthquake exacerbated the conditions that put women at higher risk for sexual assault, they also worsened the already poor conditions for adequate provision of reproductive health care.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reported that one year after the earthquake Haiti continues to face numerous challenges on the sexual and reproductive health front, “from the delivery of care and supplies, to managing sexually transmitted infections and addressing complex issues such as delivery complications for cholera-infected women and care for their newborns, who may be premature.”[6] UNFPA data also showed a spike in pregnancies after the earthquake, highlighting the unmet need for contraceptive services. Of 2,391 women surveyed in 120 of the IDP camps, 12 percent responded that they were pregnant.[7] “Unfortunately, according to the data, two-thirds of these were unwanted pregnancies,” says Igor Bosc, the UNFPA’s representative in Haiti.[8]
Efforts to combat these challenges are being made, however. “The reproductive health needs of the population are often forgotten in the aftermath of a disaster,” says Bosc, but the UNFPA, several other aid organizations, and grassroots workers are working to ensure that this is not the case in Haiti.[9] For example, Family Health International is currently working on an initiative to reintroduce the intrauterine device in Haiti.[10] The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) recently accepted from MADRE, along with other organizations, a list of recommendations for the Haitian government to instill precautionary measures against gender-based violence, the spread of HIV/AIDS, and unintended pregnancy in the IDP camps.[11] And the UNFPA has invested in the provision of solar lights to light the pathways to latrines.[12]
“There is more that must be done, though,” writes Amie Newman, managing editor of RH Reality Check. “The IACHR recommendations also state that the United Nations, Donor States and NGOs in Haiti, working with the Haitian government, must ‘ensure adequate and accessible medical care, an appropriate response to complaints of sexual violence,’ and the assurance that instances of violence against women are investigated and prosecuted. It’s far from too much to ask. It’s what must be done—one year later.”[13]

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[1] Aftershocks: Women Speak Out against Sexual Violence in Haiti’s Camps (London: Amnesty International, 2011), 5.

2 “One Year after the Earthquake, Haiti’s Recovery Proceeds Slowly,” UNFPA, 10 January 2011, accessed 14 January 2011, <>.

3 Our Bodies Are Still Trembling: Haitian Women Continue to Fight against Rape (New York: MADRE, 2011), 4.

4 Deborah Sontag, “Sexual Assault Adds to Miseries of Haiti’s Ruins,” New York Times, 23 June 2010, accessed 20 January 2011,

5 Nicholas D. Kristoff, “Saving Lives with Family Planning,” New York Times, 4 March 2009, accessed 20 January 2011, <>.

6 “One Year after the Earthquake, Haiti’s Recovery Proceeds Slowly,” UNFPA, 10 January 2011, accessed 14 January 2011, <>.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

10 “Research,” Family Health International, accessed 20 January 2011, <>.

11 Our Bodies Are Still Trembling, 12.

12 Amie Newman, “One Year Later, Sexual Violence in Haiti Still Rampant,” RH Reality Check, 13 January 2011, accessed 20 January 2011, <>.

[13] Ibid.