– Diane Paul is Nonresident Senior Fellow on Natural Disasters and Human Rights, Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement at The Brookings Institution. The views expressed are her own. –
As the world rushes to Haiti’s aid, we should remember some of the lessons of the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Protecting vulnerable people is as important as giving them water, food, or medical care. Children, women, the elderly, and the disabled all have particular vulnerabilities that must be taken into consideration when relief is provided.
Children separated from their parents should be placed with relatives or trusted family friends whenever possible, or with foster families, not in institutions. Their names must be listed with Red Cross tracing services immediately so that they can be reunited with parents or relatives. It is unfortunately true that in the aftermath of disasters, children are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and trafficking and need to be protected against these dangers.
Communities should be supported to start educational programs at the earliest moment, even though schools will probably not open for some time. Classes can be held even under the open sky and a routine helps children feel more secure after enduring such traumatic events. As shelters go up, women and children must be protected from rape and other violence through protective measures around sleeping quarters and sanitation facilities such as lighting, fencing and guards. To ensure they receive their share of food, women should be placed in charge of food distribution. Pregnant and lactating women need special consideration.
Food and water points must be guarded to prevent strongmen from commandeering them. Older people and persons with disabilities need shelters where they can access food, toilets and bathing facilities and health care. Shelters should be located in areas that are safe and protected by security forces.
Special measures should be taken to ensure treatment for and prevent discrimination against those living with HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis–diseases that carry a social stigma in Haiti. Condom distribution is critical, as the risk of transmission of HIV/AIDS is great following disasters of this magnitude. For families of the missing, the ‘not knowing’ is unbearable. The dead should not be unceremoniously dumped into pits in the mistaken belief they cause disease, but placed with dignity in designated areas for identification or photographed for later identification with clothing, jewelry etc. left untouched.