Haiti quake: protecting the vulnerable

Brothers at Petionville camp in Port-au-Prince, which receives aid from Caritas. Credit Conor O'Loughlin Caritas/2010

By Conor O’Loughlin, Communications Officer, Trócaire (Caritas Ireland) Port-au-Prince

There is a pervasive narrative around the crisis in Haiti about levels of chaos and violence in Port-au-Prince hampering the delivery of aid. But as the United Nations’ humanitarian aid chief John Holmes points out, “every disaster is chaos because that’s what disasters produce”.

Experience has taught us that in crisis situations such as this, the weaker voices in society, already vulnerable to abuse, become more so – including women, children, the elderly and the infirm. Aid is getting through (Caritas alone has already fed well over 100,000 people since the earthquake struck) and now as we slowly move towards the recovery phase, a new set of concerns come to the fore.

As the dust begins to settle here in Haiti and we get a better picture of where the relief effort goes now, we need to think beyond simply meeting basic needs – food will not keep communities safe from abuse and water will not protect them from violence.

In addition to the devastating death toll, hundreds of thousands of families are now displaced from their homes, the vast majority staying in insecure informal camps and shelters. Weapons are widely available. People’s means of earning a living have been largely destroyed. Family members have been separated, with loved ones still missing, including the heads of many households, leaving young children and vulnerable family members to fend for themselves.

As the world continues to help the beleaguered Haitians, the aid community is focusing on work beyond relief distributions alone. Food will not keep communities safe from abuse and water will not protect them from violence.

Almost half of the affected population (48%) are children, many of whom are deeply traumatised and alone. As people continue to deal with the earthquake’s devastating aftermath, it is imperative that we do not allow a situation of lawlessness to emerge where human rights abuses and crimes can be carried out without fear of consequences.

From the very early stages of this humanitarian intervention, we need to ensure that we respond, not only to the material needs of those affected, but also to concerns around safety and security of the most vulnerable.

We also need to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches all those in need equally – not just the strongest or most vocal. It is no good, for example, to simply distribute food and other rations to the first people in line outside a camp. What about the mother who cannot leave her tent because her child is sick, or the old man at the back who cannot make his voice heard because he is so weak from hunger?

The Caritas emphasis on protection reflects the growing international recognition of a responsibility to protect civilians caught up in conflict or natural disasters. At the UN World Summit in 2005, 109 governments publicly recognised the importance of civilian protection.

But what is protection? In essence, it means to ensure the safety of civilians from violence, discrimination and deprivation during a humanitarian crisis.

In Haiti, the protection concerns are myriad. One million people are now homeless. Our homes are important for safety, protection and human dignity, and to sustain family and community life. Without them we are extremely vulnerable. Overcrowded spontaneous camps, as we are seeing all over Port-au-Prince, can quickly lead to increases in tensions between groups or families and increased violence against women.

How do we do that? It might seem like a mammoth task – and in many respects the demands of protection are never fully served – but it can sometimes be as simple as lighting the paths in a displacement camp so that women and children do not have to walk alone in the dark at night. Or constructing separate latrine and washing facilities for men and women.

We need to ensure that the international humanitarian response not only provides life-saving food, water, health and shelter but also has measures in place to ensure that those most vulnerable among Haiti’s survivors are protected from abuse, violence and exploitation.

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Filed under Conflicts and Disasters, Emergencies, Emergencies in Haiti, Haiti, Latin America

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