In honour of Malala Day 2013, we thought we'd share why we believe education for Haitian girls is so important.
After the devastating 2010 earthquake, voices in Haiti and across the world insisted that this had to be used as an opportunity to 'build back better'. Women are the backbone of the Haitian economy, looking after children and those injured by disaster, and doing a great proportion of the national workload. Real disaster recovery, therefore, cannot be done without addressing the needs of Haitian women. This remains not optional but "vital", argued the US Institute of Peace just last year.
However, it is striking how much less is said about the role of education in this context. Three years after the earthquake, when Haiti is still facing huge obstacles in its slow recovery, it is more crucial than ever to have girls' education at the heart of the reconstruction process.
Women as the 'Poto Mitan' (Centerposts) of Haiti
In the majority of Haitian households, women bear the responsibility for chores, care for children and for other family members. Sometimes they are also the breadwinners, primarily working in the informal sector. Thus, they have played a pivotal role in helping their families and communities recover from the disaster; feeding mouths, caring for the sick and keeping schools open. As the earthquake crushed Haiti's economy, destroying much of its capital city, women filled 40% of the temporary jobs created by the United Nations Development Program and other international agencies.
Yet, alongside their resilience and creativity, thousands of the island's women and girls continue to be threatened daily by gender-based violence. Estimations that 70% of Haitian women have been affected by violence of some sort, primarily domestic, are harrowing. Especially at risk are those who have been living in displacement camps since the earthquake, whose suffering is exacerbated by poverty, inadequate shelter with a dangerous lack of night light, limited access to drinking water and lack of sanitation, as Amnesty has reported. This is compounded by the fact that already more women are dying from childbirth in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, than anywhere in the Americas. Improving the well-being of the female population, so they can make important changes in their society, is crucial.
The lack of full social and political empowerment of women underlies Haiti's social vulnerability to disaster; why the earthquake's effects were profoundly felt and its recovery slow. International women's organisations and those working in and monitoring Haiti have made it clear that the very women who are rebuilding their communities are commonly excluded from consultations on how to spend aid and are under-represented in politics and governance. They need to be involved in the process as the essential, equal partners they are. Otherwise, Haiti will not develop into a better, more disaster-prepared future. While the Ministry of Women's Affairs, thanks to strong local activism over the past decade, is tackling issues of gender-based violence and women's rights in the workplace, communities and at home, many of these agendas were silenced in the aftermath of the disaster. This is not only because several members of the Ministry and prominent women's rights advocates tragically lost their lives in the earthquake.
Start with Schools
When a girl has the opportunity to go to school, society has made a crucial step in recognising her as an equal human being and citizen. Education gives her access to knowledge and resources to develop her mind. She can then make her voice heard, as a future leader in her community and an active agent in Haiti's post-disaster recovery that will take many more years. Although 17% of Haitian women are married in adolescence compared with 2% of men, she is more likely to marry later if she has more years of schooling, as the UN Foundation reports. Her children will be twice as likely to attend primary school, than if she had not got an education herself. She can grow up to be one of the nine, ten or eleven, rather than eight literate Haitian woman for every 10 literate men.
But the reality is harsh: over 30% of eligible Haitian children do not enrol in school and over 70% do not reach 6th grade. In a country with 80% of its population under the poverty line, many children are needed at home for manual labour, so often only those excelling in their education are allowed to continue. There is a serious shortage of schools, especially in the dense urban areas with rapidly growing populations. The earthquake destroyed 4,000 schools, including those of one of the biggest educators of Haitian women and girls, the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny. Three years later, they are still providing classes in downtown Port-au-Prince out of temporary buildings with reduced admissions.
To truly ensure the empowerment of Haitian girls, 'building back better' must mean rebuilding sustainable, disaster-resilient schools that serve the needs of Haitian communities, including their Poto Mitan. Donors and the Haitian government need to focus their efforts on the construction of inspiring schools that can offer girls the best possible education and aspirations for the future. Beyond using women's resilience to feed mouths in emergencies, educating new generations of women will rebuild a stronger Haiti that learns from its past.
Haiti's women need your support today to educate girls in safety. Click here to join the campaign.
Author: Helena Cicmil
Photos: Gynna Millan
These images are of girls from downtown Port-au-Prince attending temporary classrooms at Centre Rosalie Javouhey.