Holding Up Haiti: Women Respond to Nightmare Earthquake

"It's important for us to recognize how strong women have been in this; how much leadership we have shown." —Liliane Pierre-Paul

All along the grid of streets that crisscross the Bois Verna neighborhood of Haiti's shell-shocked capital lies evidence of mass destruction in heaps of tangled concrete and twisted steel so massive one shudders to think of the people who now lie entombed there. It's week two following le gran choc—the great shock—and everywhere one goes, from the ports to the hillsides, from the poorest shanties to the palatial homes of the rich elite, the rubble remains as a testament to the sheer leveling power of January 12’s earthquake.

Even two weeks later the earth continues to unleash daily aftershocks that both terrify and remind dazed survivors that the nightmare is not over, nor is the danger. Ironically, the only houses that have managed to escape the historic 7.0 earthquake that leveled much of the country are the elegant gingerbread-style wooden homes that are reminders of colonialism and slavery—periods that shaped Haiti’s resilience and courage as a people.

When I arrive on Saturday, January 23, there are no longer crowds of frantic relatives picking through collapsed buildings for loved ones. And there are no longer aid workers anxiously placing their ears to the giant cracks that run up the buildings—listening for the faint cries that kept hope alive day upon day. The air is getting clearer, though it's still dusty. Here and there the faintly nauseating sour-sweet smell of death rises up from giant mounds of broken cement that entomb loved ones.

Port-au-Prince has become a giant cemetery. People around me seem unable to grasp the sheer enormity of what has happened to their country. They stare at the words scrawled in Kreyol across any and all remaining walls: an X, a demoli, meaning ‘to be demolished.’ Haiti’s people are still shocked and unable to imagine how to begin grieving for their dead as they take on the challenge of living and rebuilding a future. At night, sections of the city's population are camped out, witnessing, reliving the horror out loud, laying their exhausted bodies and the few goods they could rescue in front of still-standing houses that no longer offer shelter or safety. With another shrug of the earth, they too could fall.

That's where I am told to find Liliane Pierre-Paul, one of Haiti's leading journalists and a fierce feminist, as well as an old friend. She's been spending her days and nights camping out in the concrete courtyard of her second home, Radio Kiskeya. The building that houses one of Haiti's most popular community radio stations was damaged, I was informed, and the studio where Liliane has resumed broadcasting is not safe. Her team is looking for a new space, but in the meantime, there's an urgency to speak out, to give voice to ordinary Haitians who lost their public forum—community radio—during the first week of the quake. That includes women, who, Liliane confirms, have been tremendous in responding to the quake and the myriad challenges that have followed—ordinary women, market women, elite housewives, grandmothers, and girls—displaying remarkable courage and solidarity.

A dynamic woman with a warm manner, Liliane meets me in the small reception area of the radio station, glancing up from time to time at the ceiling, watching, I assume, for signs of weakness. She's wearing a knitted Rasta-looking cap—from Ethiopia, she tells me—and a white shawl with casual trousers. Despite years of intense living and speaking out against successive Haitian dictators and strongmen, she remains youthful looking and clearly battle-ready, even if weary and grieving for lost colleagues and friends.

"From the minute the buildings fell," Liliane informs me, "women were there and everywhere. They were leading the way into buildings; leading stunned children into safety; tending to the wounded; screaming and demanding help; speaking to the foreign media and CNN; setting up instant street kitchens and camps; singing, witnessing, praying.”

“There's no doubt that the earthquake has had a massive impact on Haitian women," Liliane confirms, "in ways that we as feminists and women leaders have yet to really take in—we haven't been able to analyze this. It's just survival now. We're so busy trying to cope right this minute, to just get through this day. But we know... I know... it's huge."

I ask her about Myriam Merlet and other well-known women leaders who were killed in the earthquake. She shakes her head, extends her fingers widely and fans her arms to indicate a large space.[paging] "We've lost so many leaders, so many women leaders, and so many women at all levels that it's just... just... inestimable." She’s trying to find her words. "It's an enormous loss."

In a breath, she ticks off the names of the famous and the lesser-known: "You've got Myriam Merlet, and Magalie Marcelin. There's Anne Marie Coriolan of SOFA, the Society of Haitian Women. They're right across the street. You've got Myrna Narcisse Theodore, who died and was with the Ministry of Women. She was really a presence at the Ministry. There's also Nicole Gregoire, who was in the public administration. She was an important woman who did a lot in the area of Haitian-Dominican affairs, who really did something...” Liliane pauses, looking around, her fingers counting. "There are more, there are more... We should name them, it's important.”

She closes her eyes, concentrating. "You have Gina Dorcena, an ex-journalist who was with Radio Tropic. You have the woman who deals with geospatial issues..." She grabs my leg: “My God, of course there's Mireille Anglade—une grande femme—again, an immeasurable loss. We have two members of SOFA that died, Mirland Dorvilus and Bernardine Bourdeau...." Liliane stops, reflective. "There's also an enormous loss of women who were in the professional sectors, and young women—so many young women who were our next generation of leaders. How can we even measure this?"

Liliane informs me that two days prior, at SOFA, surviving women leaders from across social sectors met to talk about the impact of the earthquake, which damaged SOFA and destroyed the office of Kay Fanm, a leading women's rights organization. There are a litany of community non-profits, microfinance organizations, rural centers, and other institutions serving women that have been destroyed or impacted by the quake.

"We're going to have to assess, and then find ways to help," she says.

What about how the earthquake affected ordinary women? In Haiti, there's a Kreyol word used for the central, fundamental role of women: Poto-Mitan, from the French word Poteau, as in 'the solid beam that holds up the house.' Haitian women are regarded as the brick and the engine of society—the mothers, the caregivers, the money-makers, and market-vendors, the ones who work tirelessly to care for their children and husbands and parents.

"Tu touche la femme, tu touche la famille," Liliane says, reciting another well-known fact: When you touch women, you touch the family. By now, we know that at least 140,000 lie dead in the rubble of the quake in Port-au-Prince, and that smaller cities like Jacmel, Petit Goave, and Jeremie suffered equally or even greater comparative destruction. Tens of thousands have been injured. Within these statistics are women and girls, including snapshots that reflect a terrible loss: 300 nurses in one institution, the collapse of schools with many girls, and more. Now, looking ahead, there are many women and girls who have amputated limbs, crushed bodies. And there are the women and girls who remain profoundly traumatized, in need of mental health services, as well as physical therapy, and ongoing restorative care.

There is also the additional vulnerability and threat of sexual violence and violence to women and girls that is a common feature during catastrophe and social instability. Without shelter or safety, there is real reason to worry about the period ahead. Haitian groups and UN agencies have gone public about their fear that sex traffickers will target Haitian children and orphans, especially girls. As a leading orphan's advocate stressed this week, "This is a serious preoccupation for us right now. We have to be vigilant and proactive to confront this threat."

Yet, as Liliane Pierre-Paul stresses, Haitians have long proven unbelievably strong and resilient, and women have demonstrated this in spades since the nightmare of January 12.

"It's important for us to recognize how strong women have been in this; how much leadership we have shown," she says. "As of now we haven't been able to really tell that story, the story of ordinary women, because we lost our voice—the radio—for that critical first week. And we've been in a state of complete survival and shock. But let me tell you, they have been incredible. The Haitian women are mobilizing. Even with everything that's been lost, with all their own injuries and pain, they are brave. It has to be said."

Later, at SOFA, we come together to set an agenda for how to include women's voices in the discussions about rebuilding Haiti. We talk about how if there are any people who are prepared to survive nature's most catastrophic earthquake, it is Haitians, a population that has learned to live with almost nothing, a people who have forever endured a scale of suffering unlike anywhere else in this hemisphere. We talked about the innumerable demonstrations of extraordinary strength and human spirit all around us: as individuals, as women, as a people, as a nation.

Looking ahead, Liliane is confident that women leaders will rally, and a new generation will rise to the extreme challenges that lie ahead. That includes creating fresh avenues for women to not only lead but to have a voice in the rebuilding of Haiti that is being envisioned now. And it means reaching out to other women, men, and groups around the world to ask for support and partnership.

"We need many partners, but we are ready to lead. That's the message that needs to be broadcast."

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AC, this information is so vital to our community as members look to us for suggestions of what they can do and how they can mobilize around the relief efforts. I am a Disaster Responder and know first-hand how resilient women are and have witnessed the fortitude they display when tragedy strikes. Thank you for sharing the important work these women are doing. I know that they will be leading the charge as the city rebuilds.

Sending you positive energy and gratitude for the coverage you have provided. Best wishes, Janice

Anne Christine, A few years back I worked on a survey with Colette Vilgrain, a physician and researcher, and have yet to be able to find out anything about her fate following the earthquake. Might you be able to check around to see if any of your colleagues have any idea of her welfare and whereabouts, please. She is married to Emile Charles who was administering Global Fund grant monies when I was last in Haiti in 2006, and previously was working directly with the Ministry of Health. Haven't been able to find out about his fate either, so anything that you might be able to dig up about them would be most appreciated. My deepest sympathies to you and your colleagues in Haiti for the tragic losses of your loved ones. Best, Nina

this is very sad,give my sympathies to them,we wish them all the best of luck.all i can do now is pray for them,and may the souls of their lost ones rest in ertenal peace. my regards to all of them best of luck leila

The shock to the world about this disaster has left may of us thinking about numbers, that so many people perished, but reading this post gives a humane perspective to this tragedy, naming the women who perished, the ordinary women who should not be forgotten. As Haiti and the Haitian women and girls forge forward to rebuild your nation, I can only see courage sisters, forge on ahead as we support you emotionally, materially and in whatever way we can. May the souls of the departed rest in peace and may the tears of the loss lessen the pain that you feel at the loss, yet you have to move on.

Courage sisters! In sisterhood from Kenya,

Sophie Ngugi

I am a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the sky

www.sophiengugi.blogspot.com/ www.sophiengugi.com

Thank you AC for bringing out the strength of women at a time when we are all trying to figure out why and how. Our prayers and thoughts are with all the Haitian families and people!!!!


I shall surely join the women in Haiti for this fight for survival and order, we all shall be loud and outspoken as they are.

Both You and Lillian are my inspiration.

God speed.

First and utmost I would like to thank Anderson Cooper for the work that he has done and about to do for the future of Haiti. As social Activist I plan to do my part in the rebuilding of Haiti. As for me it is going "Home" As I"m looking at this natural disaster It sadden me because these women looks like me. My life has changed as a result of this devastation. I'm waiting for my passport and putting my family's life in order before I go Home to Haiti. I'm networking with some good people to assist me to empower the lives of women and children in Haiti. As an Activist I've always believe to be part of the solution no the problem. it is so important to bring back the voices of the women that died in the rubble so their work would not be in vain. This disaster can only bring Hope in lives of women all over the world because, we are full circle.

Thank you for bringing us news about Haiti and some of its valued women leaders. A book group at WorldPulse is currently reading "Walking on Fire" by Beverly Bell. It is a compendium of Haitian women's stories about survival and was published in 2001. As I read these brave accounts I can't help but wonder what has happened to these women after the hurricane. One of them is mentioned in your article as having perished (Myriam Merlet). Throughout these stories the women all talked about the strength they received from other women in Haiti and Haitian Women's organizations. I wonder if you know of any organizations (aside from the major AID orgs) that are helping women get back on their feet in Haiti? I would like to help. Thank you again for your article.

Coming to this article late, it's interesting to look back and be in the middle of the intensity of the earthquake aftermath. I appreciate you writing about the women and their strength in adversity, and continuing to get stronger through even more adversity. I'd love to see followup articles on the situation now. Though the "worst" is over, I'm sure there is still a strength of heart in the continuing repair of lives and country. TWilson | www.btdinc.com


Salutations with sympathy & honor to the Brave sisters of Haiti ! Our prayers and sympathies are with you from faraway lands; for those who disappeared in the catastrophe and also for those who are striving for life themselves and yet encouraging & helping others to survive. It has always been like that. It’s always woman to protect the others because they are the mothers the real creators of the human society; its only rarely that the current flows on the surface & then only we identify & recognize them but it’s always them to protect all. Woman have always been strong & have much leadership potentiality in them.

Regards Women Magazine