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Haiti six months on: building a better country from the rubble

© UNICEF /LeMoyne
Pupils attend lessons in a UNICEF classroom tent

by Debbie Stowe, UNICEF Consultant

Six months after a devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake rained further agony down on Haiti, , the story has long since drifted from the media radar screen, replaced by more recent disasters such as the floods in Pakistan. But though the drama of collapsing buildings and immediate threats of disease outbreaks have receded, and the world’s gaze now lies elsewhere, life is Haiti is a long way from back to normal. And given the challenges that beset the Caribbean state prior to the tremor, even that ‘normality’ was a long way from being an appropriate environment for Haiti’s children – who make up nearly half of the country’s population.

UNICEF, as one of the main aid agencies involved in the post-earthquake operation, has used the occasion of the six-month anniversary of the quake to compile a progress report. The document records not only what has been achieved so far, but what pressing needs remain, as Haiti struggles to become a country fit for children.

It is a huge challenge. As always, the true scope of the suffering is most poignantly exemplified by the personal stories of the survivors and victims. But even the bare figures are shocking. Some 220,000 lives lost. 1.6 million people displaced (the equivalent of the population of Manhattan), of whom half are thought to be children. 300,000 injured. 4,000 people who have lost a limb. Millions of onlookers, moved by the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding on their television sets, computer screens and newspapers, contributed to the relief effort.

© UNICEF/ /Ramoneda
Girls receive school supplies provided by UNICEF at a temporary classroom in a park

The good news is that half a year on, there has been no increase in malnutrition and no major outbreaks of disease. But Haiti is not out of the woods yet. The release of the report coincides with the onset of the country’s often devastating hurricane season, which threatens to undo much of the fragile recovery. In 2008, more than 800,000 people were affected by hurricanes and tropical storms. And it is estimated that over 100,000 people in 84 assessed sites in the capital of Port-au-Prince are vulnerable to rain-related hazards such as floods and landslides. Currently, only 7,000 have been moved to safer ground.

And there are other risks. The spontaneous settlements housing those who lost their homes in the quake could, if left, develop into new urban slums. In these sites, an average of 145 people share one latrine, creating obvious health and sanitation hazards. Half a million children in Haiti have been deemed extremely vulnerable and require child protection assistance.

And of course the pre-existing problems also remain. Children and women in Haiti are still living in unacceptable conditions, with too little water and too little access to proper sanitation. Infants and children under five are still exposed to vaccine-preventable diseases, while older children are not in school and vulnerable to physical and sexual violence, exploitation and child trafficking. Young people and adolescents are missing out on the opportunities taken for granted by their peers elsewhere.

But the challenges must not overshadow the great progress that has been made, thanks to the combined efforts of the government of Haiti, United Nations, international community and people of Haiti. An unprecedented joint effort from aid agencies, funded by the generosity of people across the world, has already reaped tangible results.

Safe water is now reaching 330,000 people daily and more than 275,000 children have been immunised against major vaccine-preventable diseases. Children between nine months and seven years are receiving vital vaccinations against deadly diseases and Vitamin A supplements, as part of a wider immunisation campaign.

On the nutrition side, 126 outpatient therapeutic feeding programmes and 28 stabilisation centres provide life-saving care to malnourished children, compared to the 8 acute malnutrition management sites that were in operation three months ago.

As immediate needs are met, attention turns to long-term aims like education. The six-month report reveals that 185,000 children have now been reached with basic education materials and 1,297 school tents have been set up for 155,000 learners. This marks significant progress from three months after the disaster, when UNICEF was about to deliver the first 200,000 of 720,000 backpacks containing essential school supplies. At that point, 900 school tents covering over 90,000 children had been deployed in conjunction with Save the Children.

UNICEF/ Markisz/  Footballer Lionel Messi, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, visits children in Haiti

UNICEF-supported child-friendly spaces are now up to 225, catering to 62,800 children (in comparison with 80 such spaces tending to the needs of 55,000 children at the three-month point). Meanwhile, the agency continues to coordinate the Clusters in Nutrition, Education
(co-led with Save the Children Alliance), Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, and the Child Protection Sub-Cluster. With the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), UNICEF co-leads the Gender-Based Violence Working Group and co-leads with the International Organization for Migration in the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Group.

UNICEF is continuing its efforts in the stricken region, working to overcome the unique challenges presented in a country where the entire administration collapsed in the wake of the disaster. It is without doubt a long road back for Haiti. But the cooperation of the agencies, public and organisations on the ground combined with the goodwill and generosity of people around the world offer hope that the incremental changes as the months pass can help build a better Haiti and a country truly fit for children.



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