Haiti's desperate women

Friday, July 23 2010

Paul McPhun, Citizen Special

Published: Wednesday, July 25, 2007

While, according to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office, the purpose of his recent trip was to "establish new partnerships in the Americas and enhance Canada's relationships in Latin America and the Caribbean," let's hope his stop in Haiti makes people notice that that country is embroiled in a significant humanitarian crisis that has previously been largely ignored.

Haiti has the grim distinction of being the poorest country in the western hemisphere and having the highest level of maternal mortality. This may be difficult to believe, considering it is only a four-hour flight from Montreal. Haitians continue to suffer the consequences of systemic and insidious violence, and women are among the most vulnerable victims.

Despite elections in 2006 and the presence of a United Nations stabilization mission, Haiti continued to experience regular outbursts of violence: kidnappings, rape, organized crime and confrontations between armed groups and UN forces.

In this context of severe political and social instability, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) opened an emergency obstetric-care hospital in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, in March 2006. MSF's Jude Anne Hospital serves women who have little access to health care, who live in the poorest neighbourhoods of the city and are thus most marginalized and at risk of violence.

MSF's experience tells us that women living in the slums of Port-au-Prince are exposed to violence daily. An expectant mother from the Cite Soleil slum could be sexually assaulted by a family member, a neighbour, a gang member or other assailant. She might get caught in the crossfire of a conflict between armed groups, or she might experience psychological trauma due to the violence.

Because she lives in a gang-controlled slum, she could be ostracized by people from other parts of Port-au-Prince who fear that she might be associated with the gang. Perhaps the sole caregiver for her children, she struggles against the increased vulnerability that comes with extreme poverty. She is forgotten by her society and the international community.

These women have very little choice, if any, when they seek health care. The health-care system in Haiti is accessible only to those who can afford it and thus remains out of reach to women living in the poor areas of the city. Medical services in public hospitals are too expensive for the majority of expectant mothers. Should a baby be born by normal delivery, the mother would have to pay a $13 fee at a public hospital -- six times the average daily salary of a working Haitian, and completely unaffordable for an unemployed mother, despite a declaration made two years ago by the interim government that maternal care should be offered for free.

Since MSF opened Jude Anne, more than 10,000 babies have been delivered, which amounts to 20 per cent of the estimated births in Port-au-Prince. Thousands of mothers seek care at this hospital because they cannot access or afford to get treatment anywhere else in the city.

These figures clearly indicate a massive and ongoing need for emergency obstetric care for women living in the slums of Port-au-Prince, and a humanitarian crisis deserving of worldwide attention.

Paul McPhun is operational manager for Haiti for Medecins Sans Frontieres, Canada.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2007

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