Q&A: What is needed to help the children of Haiti? Protecting them from the conditions there before the disaster, says researcher

Even before the catastrophic January earthquake that destroyed much of its capital, killed an estimated quarter million people and left a million others homeless, Haiti was considered one of the poorest nations on earth, with high rates of HIV/AIDS and violence against women.

In August, a Yale study warned that these pre-existing factors, coupled with the physical devastation, widespread displacement and loss of life from the earthquake, would further compromise the health and safety of Haiti’s women and children and leave them at heightened risk of sexual or physical violence, child trafficking and poor psychosocial health.

As the U.S. Congress considers legislation aimed at protecting women and children from violence in post-disaster settings around the world, the Yale Daily Bulletin spoke with the study’s lead author Jhumka Gupta, assistant professor of epidemiology and public health at Yale, about the implications of her research.

What was the purpose of your study?

It was intended to bring attention to issues that are underemphasized in post-disaster settings. We hear a lot about infectious diseases and child-trafficking by strangers. But children were already in very dire situations before the earthquake, and the danger they faced wasn’t necessarily from strangers. It was really in their own families and their own households. For example, they were being exposed to high levels of intimate partner violence. Then there are the situations where rural children are handed over to wealthier urban families in the hope that they’ll have a place to live and receive schooling, but that can also turn into a very abusive situation.

After the earthquake there was so much emphasis on child rights, on creating a safe space for children and doing safety assessments, but it seems like it was very much focused on protecting children from outsiders or strangers. The point I wanted to emphasize was that if we really do want to create safe spaces for children, we also need to intervene with families, particularly around the issues of violence against women.

What reports are you hearing from Haiti?

Lots of displacement from Port au Prince particularly, and as a result, a lot of resources in rural areas are being overstressed. Additional family members who have left Port au Prince have to be provided for, which creates financial stressors. And I’m hearing of a lot of safety issues for women and girls.

What needs to be done to help the children of Haiti?

I think in addition to what is traditionally done in post-disaster settings such as restoring food and water, treating infectious and water-borne diseases, more comprehensive strategies are needed that go beyond protecting the child. I would suggest measures aimed at preventing gender-based violence. This would help bolster women’s rights, women’s economic opportunities. I would also suggest programs for men to help reduce their violence against women, psychosocial counseling. Haiti also needs the restoration of normal life, including schooling.

Is any of that happening?

It’s certainly being talked about. There are reports about UNICEF’s efforts around these issues. But we need to wait and see whether what is being talked about is actually being implemented, and if it is, how effective it is.

Other thoughts?

Right now Congress is voting on the International Violence Against Women act, and some of the provisions are specifically focused on protecting women and girls from gender-based violence in post-disaster settings. Much of the Congressional testimonials have focused on Haiti, so this discussion is very timely.

— By Helen Dodson

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Helen Dodson: helen.dodson@yale.edu, 203-436-3984