Haiti quake creates new crisis among women, girls

Posted on 31 August 2011


By Jacqueline Charles
Miami Herald

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Fourteen-day-old Alexandro Joseph has never seen a doctor and 7-month-old Lovemika Belzi has suffered from diarrhea since the day she was born.

In the sprawling camps that continue to dot this broken capital after last year’s devastating earthquake, health and human rights officials warn of an another crisis: an explosion of tent babies.

“The camps are not an appropriate place for delivery and not for a newborn,’’ said Olivia Gayraud, health and nutrition manager for Save the Children’s Port-au-Prince field office, which works with pregnant women in five camps. “You have win, rain, mosquitoes and cholera. The conditions of the life of these families with newborns are very difficult. It can be a disaster.’’

Even before Haiti’s killer January 2010 earthquake, more women died before, during and after childbirth — and more babies died before their fifth birthday — than anywhere in the Americas.

Twenty months after the disaster, the crisis has triggered a breakdown of Haiti’s social fabric and made an already vulnerable population of girls and women even more desperate amid a population spike in the tent cities.

“There is usually a (pregnancy) peak after carnival,’’ Gayraud said, referring to the pre-Lenten debauchery. “It seems though that we are now always in a peak.’’

Haiti’s tent baby phenomenon comes as the country continues to struggle to rebuild, and as the nearly 600,000 Haitians still living in hundreds of squalid camps in quake-ravaged communities see the avalanche of medical assistance from foreign doctors and nongovernmental organizations disappear.

“We have NGOs telling us, we are packing up and leaving at the end of this month,’’ said Emmanuel Schneider, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, who blames a lack of funding for the departures. “Of the $300 million consolidated appeal the U.N. system is requesting to cover humanitarian needs, only 52 percent has been funded.’’

The lack of funding means less access to prenatal and maternal healthcare in a country that was already struggling to get women to deliver in hospitals instead of at home, said Sylvain Groulx, Haiti’s chief of mission for Doctors Without Borders, which runs a maternity hospital for high-risk pregnancies in Delmas 33.

“Haiti has been suffering in terms of health services for many, many years,’’ he said. “The lack of services has been compounded by the earthquake, especially for people living in Port-au-Prince, Carrefour and Leogane.’’

Population explosions after a disaster are nothing new. But in a country already rattled by a collapsed health system, cholera epidemic and now sordid conditions in congested camps, experts say they are worried about the impact. Adding to the concerns are conditions under which the pregnancies are occurring: insecurity and rapes in the camps despite increased U.N. peacekeeper patrols, lack of education and medical services, and desperation among girls, some as young as 13.

“There is a lot of transactional sex going on as a coping mechanism for young girls to survive poverty, to address some of their needs,’’ said Dr. Henia Dakkak of the United Nations Population Fund, which found that pregnancy in Haiti’s camps after the quake were three times higher than in urban areas. “It’s a concern for all of us.’’

And that includes the camp residents, too.

“A lot of parents have just given up,’’ said Rose Mona St. Fleur, 33, a camp resident and head of a women’s group.

St. Fleur said her camp near the international airport doesn’t have a problem with rape but it has seen an “explosion’’ in teenage pregnancy.

“After the quake, you see all of the young girls, living by themselves in their own tents, and finding pleasure in the company of young men,’’ she said. “The parents can no longer control them or say anything. As soon as you see a young lady living by herself under a tent, it’s only a matter of time before she ends up with an unplanned pregnancy.’’

On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch will release a 78-page report detailing the vulnerability of girls and women in camps. Interviews showed how gaps in access to available healthcare services are failing to prevent maternal and infant deaths, and how young girls and women are giving birth on mud floors, in alleys and without medical help. The organization is calling on the Haitian government and the international community to do more to protect women and girls.

“Despite gains made due to free healthcare services, the government and international donors have not addressed critical gaps in access to health services or addressed conditions that may give rise to maternal and infant deaths,” said Kenneth Roth, the organization’s executive director.

On the lawn of the prime minister’s quake-ravaged office building, new mother Christa Oviles recalls how she gave birth on the muddy floor after two days of labor.

With no doctor or a nurse available in the camp, she relied on friends who willed her to push. She finally delivered Alexandro on Aug. 15. But when she couldn’t deliver the after birth, she was rushed to a hospital across town. These days, the baby spends most of his time inside, Oviles says, his body constantly attacked by mosquitoes.

In the tent, Oviles small bed is in one corner and a charcoal stove a few feet away. Her only other possessions — clothes — are wrapped in sheets against the sides.

“This is no place for a baby,’’ she said.