The Need for a Gender Focused Approach to Reconstruction in Haiti

By Adam D. Dubin[1]

On January 12, 2010, an earthquake of unimaginable magnitude shook Haiti, leaving hundreds of thousands of people dead and millions without homes and livelihoods. Families were destroyed, children were orphaned, and millions of people were forced into displacement camps throughout the country with little or no access to basic services. As is the case in any post-conflict or post-disaster setting, the vulnerable are impacted the most, yet often times cared for the least. In Haiti, where rape was only criminalized in 2005, women and girls have faced extraordinary sexual violence on a daily basis.[2] The threats of gang rapes and sexual assaults, particularly in displacement camps, have become standard and daily worries of women and girls who are left with little or no police protection.[3] Even after an assault, women and girls have no recourse within the judicial system due to the dysfunctional state of both public and private institutions, as well as the pervasive male-dominated culture.

To guide reconstruction efforts, the Haitian Government has developed the Post-Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA).[4] While the quickness with which the PDNA was developed is laudable, it fails to ask the questions: “Does Haiti’s reconstruction require a gender-focused approach? And, if so, what should this approach look like?” In a country such as Haiti, where women are routinely marginalized and only minimally absorbed into any economic or social prosperity, reconstruction plans that treat the population as a homogeneous body and do not tailor policies with a gender-focused approach will inevitably leave women out of future development. Under the auspices of CUNY Law School’s International Women’s Human Rights (IWHR) Clinic, students are working to submit a report that asks the international community to develop an approach to reconstruction that includes a specific focus on women and girls, a vulnerable population in Haiti who have suffered and continue to suffer unimaginable sexual violence, marginalization, and continuous human rights violations.

Gender and development are inextricably linked. Efforts to develop a country cannot be in the form of blanket policies implemented with the hope that women will benefit from reconstruction efforts. Women require specific and targeted policies that not only benefit them as recipients of the progress but also as participants of the process, ensuring that the views of women are taken into account at each stage of the reconstruction efforts and that they are empowered throughout the process.

A brief overview of the legal and societal structure of Haiti demonstrates why reconstruction policies cannot take on a population-as-a-whole approach. In Haiti, women can legally marry at fifteen years of age. A 2004 United Nations Report found that at least 19% of girls between 15 and 19 were married, divorced, or widowed.[5] Girls who marry at such a young age rarely have access to education and often find themselves in violent and repressive marriages where males dominate, and wives are forced to remain subservient to the needs of their husbands.[6] The foundation Solidarité des Femmes Haïtiennes found that eight out of ten Haitian women have been subject to domestic violence.[7] While Haitian law prohibits acts of violence against women, the lack of women in the police and judiciary combined with poor enforcement of laws by judges and prosecutors lead to crimes against women being rarely punished. The lawlessness that now pervades Haiti has only intensified crimes against women— gangs of men roam displacement camps seeking girls and women of all ages to rape and assault, knowing that impunity is almost guaranteed.[8]

As an example of why a gender-focused approach to development is so important, take, for example, the issue of productivity. Increased investment in women and girls, both through education and job training, is statistically correlated to raising per capita productivity and reducing headcount poverty. Yet, without specific programs that intentionally seek female integration, policies will not achieve their desired results. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, if policies were developed to integrate women into fieldwork, the United Nation estimates that total agricultural output of the country would increase between 6–20%.[9] Alternatively, in Peru, targeted policies and investment aimed at helping women in one rural area develop basic computer lessons has helped them work in a business taking orders from expatriates seeking tortillas. Per family incomes were increased substantially as a result of investment in these women.[10]

Training, education, and economic opportunities are only part of the battle. The reconstruction of Haiti must begin by ensuring that women and girls are protected from assault, that their rights are respected, and that they are made part of the reconstruction process. The culture of impunity that pervades Haiti, permitting women and girls to be raped on a daily basis, prevents the integration of this vulnerable population into the work force or educational system. One approach must be to improve physical security around the camps and this should be coupled with the strengthening of the judiciary from a female-centered perspective. For example, a gender-focused approach to development would not only seek to rebuild a floundering judiciary, but would ask questions such as: “are women represented?” and “what are the obstacles to women seeking justice in Haiti?” However, until women have a chance to be part of this rebuilding process, women will continue to suffer from a lack of access to the courts, and a legal system where prosecutors and judges routinely dismiss cases of rape or hand down sentences that are at best a “slap on the wrist” for men who violate women.

This brief overview of the need for a genderfocused approach to development only provides a snapshot, at best, of the plight of women and girls in Haiti and the corresponding need for a reconstruction plan that integrates gender-focused policies. With the development of Haiti still in its nascent stages, the CUNY IWHR Clinic has an opportunity to demonstrate to the international community why a gender-focused approach cannot be substituted for a population-as-a-whole approach. This is not to say that men or boys should be left out of the rebuilding process; in fact, they play a crucial role as allies. A gender-focused approach acknowledges that the problems of women and girls are different from the problems of boys and men. Policies that treat the population as one homogeneous group are bound to fail and will only perpetuate the human rights abuses in Haiti, ultimately leading to a continuation of poverty and failed livelihoods.

1  Adam Dubin is a visiting law student at CUNY School of Law from Pace University School of Law in New York. He holds an MA in International Development Policy from the University of Manchester, England, and has worked on human rights and development issues in Cambodia, India, The Gambia, and Mexico.

2  In October 2010, CUNY’s International Women’s Human Rights (IWHR) Clinic submitted a petition to the Inter- American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) requesting that it require the Haitian Government and United Nations (UN) agencies to take immediate action to address sexual violence against women and girls in displacement camps. On December 22, 2010, the IACHR responded by issuing an unprecedented decision requiring the Government of Haiti and UN agencies to take immediate action to ensure the safety of girls and women in displacement camps. The petitioners’ request can be found here:

The IACHR decision can be found here:

3 See generally Liesel Gerntholtz, Sexual Violence: Help Haiti’s Women, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (Mar. 9, 2010), (documenting the pervasive sexual violence against women).

4  See generally Government of Haiti, Post Disaster Needs Assessment (2010),

5  Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Social Institutions & Gender Index, Gender Equality and Social Institutions in Haiti, available at (last visited Apr. 24, 2011).

6  Id.

7  Id.

8  See generally MADRE, Our Bodies are Still Trembling: Haitian Women’s Fight Against Rape (2010), %20HAITI%20GBV%20REPORT%20FINAL.pdf.

9 WORLD BANK, Gender Equality & the Millennium Development Goals 8 (2003),

10  Id.