Haitian women rebuild their lives one brick at a time

HaitiHaitian women prepare disaster-resilient construction material in Port-au-Prince. (Photo: Carolina Azevedo/UNDP)

The main driving force for earthquake-damaged house rebuilding in Haiti is not the government, the private sector, NGOs or international organizations. Families and communities have been playing a vital role, taking the task to build back a more resilient country into their own hands—especially women who head more than 40 percent of Haitian households.

Community Resource Centers for House Repairs, known by the French acronym CARMEN, have been empowering quake-affected communities in Port-au-Prince and the western town of Léogâne to directly take charge of house reparations, with engineering assessments and construction trainings. The UN Development Programme (UNDP)-Government of Haiti initiative has registered more than 19,000 people who will be trained in disaster-resilient house building techniques. Nearly half of them are women.

“My house was quite damaged after the earthquake and I had nowhere else to go.  So this initiative really suited my needs: To repair my house, earn money—and gain new skills to offer my services to others in the future,” said Gela Pierre Paul Richemond, one of the women construction workers who is among the 1,000 low-income Haitians receiving a US$500 grant to buy certified quality construction materials through the project’s innovative money transfer scheme via mobile phone—the first ever for housing repair efforts.

“When I received that first text message on my cell phone saying that my money was there I just couldn’t believe it. I was exhilarated!” added the 48 year-old Haitian woman who has never owned a bank account.

Only 10 percent of the population owns bank accounts, but mobile phone coverage in Haiti jumped from nine to 50 percent in the last six years. Such mobile money schemes also have the potential to include a large number of Haitians in an alternative financial system.

UNDP Administrator Helen Clark visited one of the House Repair Centres in Port-au-Prince on Saturday and was especially thrilled to see so many women working in reconstruction. Women workers showed Helen Clark the step-by-step process: From choosing the quality materials to laying the cement on iron-filled forms to ensure resilience to disasters such as earthquakes, cyclones, hurricanes and flooding—all of which Haiti is prone to.

Danielle Saint Lot, one of the most influential Haitian women leaders whose NGO is CARMEN’s women empowerment partner admitted facing difficulties to entice women into construction, a traditionally male sector. But once the first few began and saw the benefits, others felt encouraged to follow.
In three more months, when the training period is over, female construction workers will kick-start their own business offering services to other earthquake-affected communities.

More than 80,000 buildings collapsed due to the earthquake that rocked Haiti in 2010 killing more than 200,000 people. More than 100,000 other buildings were partially damaged but could still be repaired or rebuilt to offer safer housing conditions. Up to now, 13 percent of such buildings have been repaired and less than six percent have been rebuilt.

There are currently five House Repair Centres with a $1.8 million funding until mid-2012. In the past three months more than 8,000 families have registered to take part of the project, benefitting 19,000 people. Five thousand Haitians have begun training in construction techniques and more than 3,000 houses have been evaluated by a team of engineers.

With an additional $5 million for a period of two years the project would be able to provide: Technical support to evaluate 50,000 houses; subsidies to up to 5,000 low-income families for self-repairs using mobile money transfer technology; training for more than 20,000 people and distribution of about 3,000 construction security kits.

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