Haitian women pioneering new tech to combat violence

Haitian women are poised to pioneer the use of mobile phones in new ways that can help women across the globe to fight gender-based violence. Leveraging mobile phones, they are working to develop systems that can benefit women everywhere in accessing power and rights.

Ten months after the devastating earthquake crushed Port Au Prince, a second humanitarian crisis has unfolded among Haiti’s women and girls: A growing epidemic of gender-based violence. Women are coming together to fight this problem with the few resources they have,  organizing to provide protection for themselves and their families.

Gender-based violence is the greatest health epidemic in the world today.  It is estimated that one out of three women have been victims of sexual violence in their lifetimes.  In Haiti, that figure was closer to 75% - and that was before the earthquake.  Now, the crisis of insecurity is significantly worse. 

Despite many promises by the international community to provide security, particularly in IDP camps, only six out of more than 1300 camps in Port Au Prince are patrolled regularly by police. In this vacuum, Haitian women’s organizations and their male allies have formed patrols with donated flashlights so that women, girls and children can be accompanied to the latrines at night, where men wait inside to attack them and rape them.  Some of the more lucky women have been given whistles by international donations made to provide women with a means of protection. Is this really the best we (the international community) can do?

During a trip to Haiti in April, I learned how many women – women with no home, few clothes, or possessions - have mobile phones. In Haiti, a headset can cost as little as USD $12 and is within reach, if a stretch, for most Haitians to afford.  Like anywhere, service is expensive, but through systems developed to keep costs manageable, such as a code for how many rings means different things, Haitians have learned to work with what they have – hardware provided. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, those cell phones saved many lives.

Two weeks ago, Eramithe Delva, one of the leading advocates working across Port Au Prince with women to prevent and respond to sexual violence, visited the U.S. to talk about the crisis of security she and other Haitian women are facing.  For the first time, USAID and other major international aid organizations learned about her story and how little has been done to provide protection.

My organization, Digital Democracy, is working with Eramithe and other Haitian women to leverage cell phones to enhance the work of organizations like Eramithe’s to combat violence.  Using a mobile system, Haitian women will be empowered to better coordinate legal and medical response teams, collect data to document the problem to ensure aid reaches those most affected, and make sure that the Haitian government and the international community cannot ignore our failure to provide security. 

This program benefits the women in urgent need of protection and responds to the growing crisis in Haiti, but it will also be a model for women everywhere to do what they do best better: defend themselves and their communities and fight for their human rights.  We must trust their expertise and support the efforts of Haitian women to innovate using new and powerful tools.  In doing so, we can help to combat one of the world’s greatest injustices and obstacles to progress and development.

For more information and to donate to this effort, visit www.digital-democracy.org/Haiti.

Abby Goldberg is a principal at Latin America/Caribbean & Gender, Digital Democracy, New York City.