The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Haiti, Ayiti: challenges and opportunities in the social divide

Bringing to light women's groups, youth councils and self-governed informal settlements, Edad Mercier finds a number of positive civil movements that Haitian authorities could easily engage with to develop a more sustainable and inclusive future for the earthquake-stricken country.

Edad Mercier

Edad Mercier

Cities: Port-au-Prince

Topics: Gender, Youth and education, Social conflict, Informal settlements, Earthquakes

One year after the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti, uncertainties about the country's presidential election results, health crises, and general unrest within Haiti's seemingly permanent 'tent cities' persist. These tribulations are often highlighted as the key issues that continue to delay Haiti's struggle forward.

A singular focus on these difficulties, however, masks the underlying sociocultural tensions that Haiti must overcome in order to move towards sustainable development. The underlying problems that must be addressed include the continued marginalisation of women and the limited engagement of Haitian youth. The resurgence of informal settlements in Haiti also represents an opportunity for the Haitian government and aid agencies to collaborate with owner-occupiers and land tenants to form a coherent strategy on housing solutions and city-space re-assembly.

Supporting women

In January of this year, Amnesty International released a report on the rampant sexual and gender-based violence perpetrated against women and girls in Haiti's tent cities. Some women revealed how security officials barely patrol the camps: "the police patrol the streets but I've never seen them inside the camp," one woman divulged.

Several women remarked how, after reporting incidences of rape, security officials never followed up with them. One woman describes how, when she told a police officer that she was raped, he did not take any notes, but instead asked her for money to buy fuel for the police car.

Grassroots women's organisations working in Haiti, such as Komisyon Fanm Viktim pou Viktim, (KOFAVIV; Commission of Women Victims for Victims) and MADRE report similar findings. They note how women and girls were simply given solar lamps to light up camp facilities when they raised concerns about their security, or handily dismissed by uninterested or inefficient law enforcement officials.

The limited response from Haitian authorities and law enforcement officials to this crisis is perhaps reflective of a context where discourse and action on violence against women is fairly new. It was only in 2005 that Haitian feminist leaders Myriam Merlet, Magalie Marcelin and Anne Marie Coriolan, who all lost their lives in the 2010 earthquake, succeeded in establishing Haiti's first law criminalising rape. The work of these women must continue with action that confronts the violence against women and girls in Haiti's tent cities.

The Amnesty International report notes that the Haitian government is party to several binding treaties — the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrmination Against Women, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. These treaties may serve as a way to force accountability and transparency on the security and treatment of women, children, and other vulnerable persons in the camps.

Additionally, partnerships and thorough engagement with grassroots women's organisations, such as KOFAVIV, MADRE, and Fanm Viktim Leve Kanpe (FAVILEK; Women Victims Arise) can help set the basis for the creation of a comprehensive strategy that supports women in Haiti's tent cities. KOFAVIV and MADRE have provided vital support for women by disseminating information on the medical facilities available to rape survivors and organising community watch groups.

Engaging youth

Haitian youth account for a major demographic that remain marginalised in the country. With 70 per cent of Haiti's population under the age of 30 and a 62 per cent rate of unemployment amongst urban youth before the earthquake, it is essential that the young people of Haiti are actively included in discussions and action plans regarding its development.

When popular musician and activist Wyclef Jean announced his candidacy for president, the Haitian youth movement briefly held the spotlight. Major media outlets excitedly debated the impact of the "youth vote" on swaying the election his way. Yet when Jean's candidature was rejected, Haitian youth seemed to fall back into their marginal role in determining the country's — and their — future.

On September 14, 2010 in Port-au-Prince, UNICEF held a series of symposia to help Haitian youth voice their concerns on social, environmental and economic issues. The symposia were part of UNICEF's 'Children and Youth Participation Movement for a Transformative Agenda for Children'. Fifty young people were invited to speak at the event. One expressed concern for Haiti's health care infrastructure, and others discussed the importance of education and human rights.

The UNICEF representative in Haiti, Fran├žoise Gruloos-Ackerman said that the forum helped the Haitian government and other partner agencies hear the voice of the youth. The UNICEF Participation Movement has the potential to spark wider debate and collaborative endeavours amongst youth participants. Participants must be given the tools to act constructively upon their concerns; tools such as web platforms linking government and youth, structured youth councils, and meetings with the leadership of international agencies seeking to invest in Haiti. Haiti can only live up to calls for a 'sustainable future' if its youth are engaged and not disillusioned.

Coming to terms with informal settlements

If the Haitian government and other stakeholders can creatively engage with Haiti's reemerging informal settlements, this may help expedite the integration of women and youth into redevelopment plans. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Haiti Nigel Fisher recently stated that "there are an estimated 810,000 people still living in the 1,150 camps" established after the earthquake, and that "of the 700,000 who have left the camps, about 100,000 have been relocated into 31,000 transitional shelters."

In addition to these movements, there are thousands of Haitians, who have departed from the tent cities in order to create their own settlements outside of Port-au-Prince. These informal settlements are not a new phenomenon in Haiti. In fact, the majority of Port-au-Prince's inhabitants lived in informal settlements before the earthquake.

Informal contracts or inter-generational land agreements have been the law of the land for decades in Haiti. Land tenure and property rights are often tenuous at best. It is no surprise then that after the earthquake, some Haitians quickly decided to create their own settlements. An example of one such settlement can be found in a notoriously dry and rocky region just outside the capital, which the residents have named Canaan. Residents of Canaan have built their own shelters, organised food and water procurement strategies, and elected leadership officials.

Yet the attitude of many central authorities has often been one of denial. Last year, talking on the decision to destroy an 800-home settlement in Morne Garnier, Haitian Secretary of State for Public Safety Aramick Louis stated simply that "our decision is firm. We call on everyone to cooperate." Some aid agencies even lament that when people spread out into informal settlements, it makes it harder for aid workers to distribute relief items. This complaint is questionable, given that residents of Haiti's tent cities do not necessarily receive basic relief items anyway.

Overall, the hasty dismissal of these settlements ignores the fact that they can serve as hubs for first-hand lessons on civic engagement, and that they can help spearhead micro-community planning initiatives for Haitian youth and other populations traditionally left out of discussions on the country's future. They may also ultimately serve as a safer space for women and children, since at least in a settlement like Canaan there is a level of orderly, collective governance. Finally, because the settlements are small and identifiable, they offer the Haitian government a direct way to begin, or experiment with the formalisation of property rights as a means of developing a coherent strategy on land titling and re-mapping solutions that suit Haiti. Furthermore, if offered formal support, such as land security, the productive capacities of these settlements might be enhanced, and serve as potential sources of micro enterprise activity which can eventually be integrated into the wider economy.

The global urban development community has an opportunity to advocate for women's and youth-led coalitions in Haiti, and alternative settlement patterns in the country that will reduce population congestion and offer a pathway to the securitisation of land and property. These are all layered tasks that carry a particular set of complications. If they are vigorously pursued however, Haiti can serve as a model for equitable redevelopment, especially for regions of the world where natural disasters continue to destroy infrastructure and devastate lives.

was the president of the Harvard Haitian Alliance from 2006-2009. She is currently pursuing postgraduate research in urbanisation and development studies at the London School of Economics, with interests in issues surrounding post-conflict emergency relief, infrastructural development in the Caribbean, and inclusive urban planning strategies.