Less chaos in Haiti food lines as int’l groups focus efforts on women, elderly

By Ben Fox, AP
Sunday, January 31, 2010

Chaos eases as Haiti food lines focus on women

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The 79-year-old woman with a 55-pound bag of rice perched on her head gingerly descended concrete steps Sunday and passed it off to her daughter-in-law — who quickly disappeared behind the faded leopard-print sheets that are the walls of their makeshift home on the crowded turf of Haiti’s National Stadium.

That personal victory for Rosedithe Menelas and her hungry family was a leap forward as well for the United Nations and aid groups that have struggled to help 2 million people who need food aid after the Jan. 12 earthquake.

Under a new targeted approach to aid, Menelas and thousands of other women across Haiti’s capital no longer have to battle with men at food handouts that in recent days have been chaotic and dangerous scrums.

“Every time they give out food there’s too much trouble,” said Menelas, collapsing into a small wooden chair as two grandchildren quickly scrambled into her lap. “Today, we finally got something.”

U.N. officials say they are still far short of reaching all of the quake victims estimated to need food.

The U.N. World Food Program and its partners, including World Vision, borrowed an approach that has worked in other disaster zones. The agencies fanned out across Port-au-Prince, distributing coupons to be redeemed for bags of rice sites across the city. The coupons were given mainly to women, the elderly and the disabled.

Men could redeem coupons for women who were busy taking care of children or who otherwise could not make it.

“Our experience around the world is that food is more likely to be equitably shared in the household if it is given to women,” WFP spokesman Marcus Prior said at the stadium, now a sprawling encampment of families left homeless by the quake.

Officials targeted women because they are primary caregivers in most households and are less likely to be aggressive in aid lines.

Many Haitians agreed.

Chery Frantz, a 35-year-old father of four who lives in a ravine near one distribution center, said men are more likely to try to sell the donated rice.

“Women won’t do that because they’re more responsible,” Frantz said.

Bags of rice will be given out daily for the next two weeks to hold the city until longer-term food efforts can take hold. Workers are handing out 1,700 rations daily at each location. Each bag is intended to help feed a family of six for two weeks with about half the calories they need each day.

WFP said that by the end of the day it had distributed some 377 metric tons of rice to more than 100,000 at nine sites.

Also Sunday, the White House said it was resuming the military airlift of critically injured earthquake victims, having received assurances that additional medical capacity exists in U.S. hospitals. The flights had stopped four days earlier, worrying doctors in Haiti who said hundreds would die without specialized care. Since then, relief groups were forced to use expensive private jets.

The Boston-based aid group Partners in Health arranged for one such plane Sunday to fly a 5-year-old tetanus victim, a 14-month-old boy with pneumonia and a baby boy with third-degree burns to Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia.

The White House said the airlift would resume in hours. “Patients are being identified for transfer, doctors are making sure that it is safe for them to fly, and we are preparing specific in-flight pediatric care aboard the aircraft where needed,” spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been asked to build a 250-bed tent hospital to relieve pressure on the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort and on Haitian facilities where earthquake victims are being treated under tarpaulins in hospital grounds. Several Port-au-Prince hospitals were damaged or destroyed.

An effort to help other Haitian children led 10 U.S. Baptists into the arms of police when they were caught trying to bus 33 children to the Dominican Republic. They acknowledged they had not gotten any permissions from Haitian authorities. They were being held without charges on Sunday.

The church members, most from Idaho, called it a “Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission” to save abandoned children in the disaster zone. But they put themselves in the middle of a political firestorm over fears that overly quick adoptions could permanently separate children from missing parents — or that traffickers may be exploiting the quake to seize and sell children.

There were some glitches in Sunday’s food campaign.

At least a dozen people didn’t make it into the stadium before U.N. peacekeepers from Brazil shut the gates. They angrily waved their coupons outside.

Inside, the Brazilians distributed sardines, corned beef and water when the rice ran out to separate lines of men and women. The crowd surged forward, prompting the peacekeepers to fire several volleys of pepper spray.

Chris Webster, a World Vision spokesman, said his group needed more security before it could open two sites in the seaside slum of Cite Soleil.

But a tour of several sites showed the project was largely successful. People hauled away their rice, often dividing it up among friends and family. Some women quickly turned their bags over to husbands and brothers, but most took it themselves to the refugee camps they call home.

“Bringing food into a situation where people are desperate is always chaotic,” Webster said at one site on the city’s Rue J. Poupelard. “But this seems like it’s going well.”

Aid workers worked with community groups and others to make the operation as smooth as possible. U.N. officials even sought the help of Voodoo priests, who urged people to stay calm, said Max Beauvoir, head of Haiti’s Voodoo Priest Association. “Voodoo constitutes a large part of our culture and priests often help mobilize communities,” Beauvoir said.

Some recipients said it was their first aid since the quake.

“I have a big family and we have nothing,” said Nadia St. Eloi, 32, a mother of six who carried her rice bag on her head while holding her 2-year-old son by the arm. She said she still needs cooking oil and beans to make a meal but will make the rice last as long as possible.

“We have no meat, so this is all we’ll eat,” she said.

Associated Press writers Paisley Dodds and Frank Bajak contributed to this report.

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