Haitian and Afghan women, you can count on us!

Crises tend to exacerbate underlying gender inequalities, disproportionately affecting women and girls. We must continue to work for them, especially in these circumstances that expose them to such great risk.

Date: Friday, September 3, 2021

As I write these lines, international news outlets are filled with dramatic images coming from Haiti and Afghanistan, the product of two different situations, but with equally devastating consequences for the population. Especially for women and girls.

The 7.2 magnitude earthquake that hit the Caribbean country on August 14 has left, according to the latest data available on August 31, more than 800,000 people affected, nearly 130,000 houses destroyed or damaged, more than 2,200 people dead and more than 12,000 injured, figures that continue to grow as rescue operations continue.

Last year it had to deal with COVID-19; tropical storm Laura, which killed dozens of people, damaged thousands of homes and destroyed crops; and escalating violence that has forced nearly 20,000 people to flee.

Even before the earthquake, more than four million people in Haiti - 60 percent of them women and girls - were expected to need emergency aid. Last year, cases of gender-based violence soared by 377% in the context of the pandemic. The current crisis is expected to further increase this type of violence.

UN Women is working with the Government, our counterparts in women's organizations and the entire UN humanitarian team to jointly respond to the disaster. However, insufficient resources and capacities and communication and transportation difficulties limit the speed and scope of the response. Security concerns are also hampering these efforts.

Almost simultaneously in Afghanistan, the collapse of the former government has left, in the words of the UN Secretary General, "chaos, unrest, uncertainty and fear". Here too, the conflict has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes. The capital has seen a huge influx of internally displaced people from provinces across the country where they felt unsafe or fled during the fighting.

As history has shown, crises tend to exacerbate underlying gender inequalities, disproportionately affecting women and girls. This includes displacement, overcrowded shelters, limited and unsegregated washing facilities, destroyed livelihoods, closed schools, and increased risk of sexual violence and other forms of abuse against women and girls.

In Haiti, where 45% of households are headed by women, the political crisis and social instability have been compounded by the socio-economic impact of COVID-19. In Afghanistan, there is also an understandable fear of backsliding in the advancement of women's rights and a past in which severe forms of discrimination were inflicted on women and girls.

In both Haiti and Afghanistan, women are highly vulnerable due to their limited access to humanitarian response, health services and even food, with the risk of increased exclusion and violence as many live without shelter in highly insecure contexts.

We call for the response to the crisis in Haiti to be made by strengthening women's leadership in a context in which historically and currently they have had low levels of participation in public life, as less than 3% of the parliament is made up of women.

In Afghanistan, although the situation has improved slightly over the last 15 years, decision-making spaces are still heavily dominated by men. The return of the Taliban to government jeopardizes the slight progress that has been made.

International experience in conflicts and disasters has shown that women are also the prime movers of recovery. Therefore, it is not only a matter of integrating them, but of putting them at the center of decision-making and strengthening their autonomy (social, political, economic), so that they can move from survival to the leading role in recovery and reconstruction.

That is why I am making this call for the rights of women to be respected in all our countries and especially in Haiti and Afghanistan, but also for their great transformative potential to be valued and promoted.

In turn, I urge the governments of Latin America to open their doors, as other nations have already done, to those seeking refuge from Afghanistan; and to support institutionally and economically the efforts of physical and institutional reconstruction of Haiti, considering the particular needs of protection of women and girls either through the traditional South-South cooperation of the region, as well as through triangular cooperation initiatives.

Finally, it is a call to citizens and to those who have the power to cooperate from their roles in governments and other international organizations, to continue working for the empowerment of women and gender equality; to continue working for the rights and needs of Afghans and Haitians, especially in these circumstances, which expose them to so many vulnerabilities and risks. Let us act clearly and decisively in favor of their rights and protection.

María Noel Vaeza is UN Women's Regional Director for the Americas and the Caribbean.

Originally published on EL PAÍS Planeta Futuro.