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Du grain à moudre

Christine Verschuur

Women only: violence and gendered entitlements in post-quake food distribution in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Sandra Uwantege Hart

Note de l’auteur

The following analysis is based primarily on field experience in food assistance coordination in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, during the months immediately following the January 2010 earthquake (January through September, 2010). These experiences, in addition to further fieldwork conducted from January to February 2011, form the basis of a Master’s thesis focusing on gender-based programming in post-earthquake Haiti (completed in July 2011). The below is a short summary of ideas treated therein.

Texte intégral

1Did the exclusive targeting of women for free food distributions in the months immediately following the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti – as a strategy implemented by the World Food Programme to address vulnerability and promote women’s empowerment – actually produce these results on the ground? Or rather, did these actions disempower women, against the broader social backdrop of confusion and community upheaval? This analysis seeks briefly to reveal the complications surrounding practical realities and institutional assumptions that the direct delivery of food assistance to women in an emergency context necessarily leads to their empowerment.

2Furthermore, this study evokes the notion that the nature of disasters, as periods of temporary (or, in some cases, lasting) social upheaval and chaos, must be questioned as to whether they represent appropriate environments in which the standard institutional assumptions surrounding the implementation of gender programming and women’s empowerment measures can be applied. Gender, as a social crossroads of power relations, household roles, sexuality and cultural context, must be seen as a constantly shifting and dynamic concept, even in the most normal of circumstances. In large-scale emergencies such as the January 2010 earthquake, social fracture and schism deeply disrupt these relationships even further, thereby changing the meanings and conditions that usually influence the performance of gender roles. The empowerment of women through the delivery of humanitarian assistance and disaster recovery programming must therefore be fundamentally rethought and re-adapted to these situations, in close collaboration with and with the participation of local women’s organisations to inform the process.

3In the 40 seconds that represented the strongest tremors of the quake, communities and households in affected areas were both physically and socially fractured. Families, friends, and couples were separated; like the physical environment, hierarchies of power, social relationships, and the gendered structure implicit therein were (at least temporarily) splintered. Men’s and women’s roles in the household were likewise disrupted – due to the timing of the earthquake at 4:53 pm, a high percentage of casualties were women who remained in the household, while men and children were at work or in school, leaving a high percentage of single-male headed households and households with only one, or no remaining breadwinner.

4In this case, the two large “surges” of humanitarian food distributions conducted by the World Food Programme in the wake of the crisis appeared to further polarise these gendered relationships in a number of ways by targeting recipients based primarily on gender. Food consistently bears intrinsically social and culturally gendered values in any given context, and, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas has pointed out, the act of dividing food and delivering food necessarily carries the potential to reinforce or change social order. Amartya’s Sen’s views of entitlements with regards to social exclusion and food access also come to mind as a key example of how food is weighted with connotations of social power and the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion. In terms of gender, this fundamentally challenges the assumptions of humanitarian actors with regards to power, sex, and culture that form the underpinnings of gender-based programming and women’s empowerment measures that characterise food assistance in the field.

5Drawing from a gender policy intended to encourage women’s empowerment, the World Food Programme conducted “women-only” food distributions in Port-au-Prince, resulting in high tensions between female recipients of food aid, men marginalised from the process and subsequently, in violence against female beneficiaries. At distributions, the tense separation between Haitian men’s and women’s entitlement to food was palpable – with women, policed by male military escorts at the interior of distribution points and crowds of men at the exterior, screaming for admittance and in some cases storming entrance gates for a chance to equal access. The result: a physical space fraught with the tension of gendered exclusion characterised by differing entitlements to food. In a very real way, these women were implicated in a highly visual process of social exclusion, in a context where vulnerability was acute for both maleand female-headed households. The environment surrounding distribution points thereby entailed a real risk for many women, who were in some cases robbed of their food, or, prior to distributions, were coerced to engage in sexual acts in order to receive food coupons entitling them to food rations during distribution.

6The “women-only” policy of the World Food Programme, used broadly in a number of country contexts is premised upon the idea that women are more likely to distribute food equitably within a household, leading to better access to food in the community at large. Furthermore, placing food in the hands of women is strongly advocated as a means to their own empowerment. To quote from Josette Sheeran, current Executive director of the World Food Programme, In situations of desperate poverty, access to food is power… we allocate family food vouchers to women, and this changes the balance of power and helps protect them against violence”. This result clearly depends on contextual analysis and did not play out as intended in the Port-au-Prince case. Indeed, institutional guidance from the World Food Programme supports this conclusion, specifically requiring a close analysis of context and work with both men and women within communities to determine whether the “women only” approach is acceptable and risks to recipient women minimised. The fact that both institutional guidance was not heeded and that tension and violence characterised this approach in certain instances begs the question – to what extent did the idea of women’s empowerment as food access become a goal unto itself… and a goal for whom?

7In the initial months of distributions, the subversion of normative gender roles hinged upon food as a focal point, exposing the disconnect between the intentions and assumptions behind the utility of food for “women’s empowerment” at the strategic and policy-making level for international actors, and the reality of – and potential for – disempowerment, violence and destabilisation at field level. Furthermore, one needs to consider this dynamic as being embedded within a gendered social power structure in a post-crisis state of chaos. As a means of empowerment, the women’s privileged access to food also led to increased exposure as targets of masculine assertions of violence.

8To elaborate on the disconnect between field-level realities and strategic assumptions, the systemic exclusion of local women’s community based organisations (CBOs) and NGOs from the planning and implementation of the WFP food distribution system also resulted in a marginalisation of local women’s voices in the programmatic process, many of whom sought inclusive, community-level discussions. In other words, there existed an additional layer of detachment between international actors making strategic decisions in the field (here referring to both international NGOs who acted as implementing partners in food distribution and the World Food Programme itself) and those women and communities actually receiving food assistance (represented by local women’s organisations and local NGOs working in distribution areas). Obvious discursive contradictions were also at play, with journalists and international organisations speaking a language of women’s empowerment on the one hand, and local women’s organisations engaging in a discourse of victimisation and the shirking of community responsibility on the other.

9Beyond victimisation, my own engagement with women’s organisations also revealed a sense of interrupted responsibility and obstructed agency within the larger context of women’s roles as food providers at the household and community level. Violence, as a disruption, dealt a fracturing blow to this role of provider and supporter that these women felt strongly was their central responsibility. In contrast, the “women’s empowerment” perspective adopted by international actors tended to homogenise needy women in the international public eye, displaying a lack of scrutiny of factors underlying the movement of women to and from food and coupon distribution points and differing levels of access among women themselves. Targeting based exclusively on gender served additionally to homogenise Haitian women in the eye of international actors, failing to discriminate between displaced and severely impoverished women and women who were more wealthy and less exposed to the acute poverty and insecurity provoked by the earthquake. The absence of local women’s voices gives the impression of a homogenously needy female population, effectively feminising the issue of food insecurity and food needs in the wake of the disaster.

10Jointly, food aid and women’s empowerment in this case have become a critical centre point for examining gendered processes of inclusion and exclusion and their relationship to hierarchies of power and the community within the context of a humanitarian emergency response. Within the larger context of my own research, this raises a number of critical questions: To what extent is the need for a more participatory approach to women’s empowerment actually compatible with the strategic discourse of international actors that shapes and informs humanitarian assistance? Who is actually defining women’s empowerment – and whose purposes does this serve? Are international actors policing the boundaries of what it means to be an empowered woman on the ground and if so, how is “empowerment” being defined? More importantly, to what extent does the institutional discourse perpetuate a “flat” view of women that is self-perpetuating, thereby discouraging actors in the field from gaining a deeper understanding of the complexities surrounding context-specific challenges to empowering local women through food aid?

11Building upon questions such as these, this research examines the gulf existing between the strategies, assumptions and perceptions of international actors and local women and Haitian women’s organisations within the context of emergency assistance and recovery programmes implemented in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, following the January 2010 earthquake. A better understanding of how humanitarian actors can better reconcile assistance with the ways in which women recipients view their own needs and recovery in disasters is critically needed and remains, to date, an issue that has been little examined. With a view to engaging these questions of gender in the implementation of humanitarian assistance and interpreting the gaps between the delivery and receipt of humanitarian assistance, this study will involve an examination of gender policies and programming through a methodology that blends and compares the “bottom-up” perspectives of Haitian women and women’s organisation with the “top-down” perspectives of international actors in Haiti such as the United Nations, major donors, and NGOs present on the ground.


Étudiante à l’Institut universitaire de hautes études internationales et du développement (IHEID). Sandra Uwantege Hart termine actuellement son Master en études du développement à l’IHEID. Après avoir obtenu un Bachelor à l’Université de Princeton, elle a travaillé pour le Programme alimentaire mondial en tant que chercheuse et consultante en charge du reporting, de l’information du public et des relations avec les bailleurs à Nouakchott en Mauritanie de 2007 à 2009. Plus récemment, elle a travaillé à Port-au-Prince à Haïti à la suite du séisme du 12 janvier 2010 en tant que coordinatrice adjointe du groupe pour l’alimentation et responsable de l’information. Elle est maintenant responsable de la gestion de la performance sociale et de la recherche de marché pour Fonkoze, une institution de microfinance qui propose des services financiers, de santé et d’éducation aux femmes à Haïti. Parallèlement, elle termine son mémoire de Master qui porte sur le genre et développement et dont le titre est « Gran Fanm Rete Anlè, Ti Fanm Rete Anba: Discourse and disconnect between Haitian women’s associations and the international humanitarian community in post-earth-quake Port-au-Prince, Haiti ».


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.


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