By Yifat Susskind

Hurricane season begins this month, and in Haiti’s displacement camps, people have begun to look fearfully toward the skies. For solutions, they must look to Haitian women.

More than a year after the earthquake, each day continues to bring life-threatening challenges to the hundreds of thousands of Haitians living in tent cities. Families that lost everything to the earthquake now struggle to feed themselves, to find clean water or to stay healthy in the face of dangerous illnesses like cholera.

Now, on top of all of this, the hurricanes are returning.

In 2008, Haiti was slammed by four hurricanes in but a few weeks in August and September. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands of homes destroyed by winds, flooding and mudslides. Today, as Haitian communities continue to reel from the earthquake, another hurricane would add to the misery.

Through decades of experience responding to disasters, women’s groups worldwide have learned indispensable lessons. We know that in the aftermath of disaster, women and girls confront particular challenges. They face increased risk of rape and violence. They lose access to reproductive health services. What’s more, aid distribution targeting male heads-of-household often leaves women out.

These threats are anything but natural. Instead, they fall along social fault lines that unload the worst burdens on the most vulnerable -- especially poor women.

But there is more to this story. Survival of families and communities depends upon women standing on the front lines of a disaster. As pillars of their communities, women know how best to rebuild. These are the women who know which family has a new baby or which grandmother has been ill.

When floods in Pakistan displaced millions of people last year, women set up clinics in remote areas and made sure that aid reached the most vulnerable populations.

When Hurricane Mitch leveled Nicaragua in 1998, women directed crucial supplies like food, clothing and medicine to families most in need.

And in the year and a half since the Haiti earthquake, women there have worked tirelessly to rebuild communities and deliver life-saving aid long after the global spotlight moved elsewhere. When the next hurricane hits, no one will be better prepared to spring into action.

We can make this hurricane season different. We can’t stop the hurricane once it begins its swift path across the ocean, but we can protect communities in its wake. The best way to do this is by working with women.

Women in a hurricane’s path are demanding they not be forgotten. They are demanding a voice in disaster-response policies, so that they can help aid get to the most vulnerable. They are demanding the opportunity to use their expertise to rebuild stronger communities.

If we support relief efforts that include women and listen to these demands, we can save lives.
Susskind is Executive Director of MADRE: Rights, Resources and Results for Women Worldwide.
Copyright © 2011 by the American Forum. 6/11