Politics of Poverty

“One door at a time”: What it takes to make changes in Haiti

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Suzar Philippe (right) talks with a community member during a door-to-door outreach campaign in northeast Haiti that encourages households to be prepared for natural disasters. Photo: Roxanne Paisible / Oxfam

Five years after the earthquake, a Haitian community leader explains that disaster preparedness requires a grassroots approach.

Suzar Philippe is a member of the local disaster preparedness committee in Ouanaminthe, an area is the Nord-Est department of Haiti.

Why do you and the other women leaders go door-to-door to talk with people directly about disaster preparedness?

We can’t afford to underestimate the importance of informing everyone on how to protect themselves and their families in the event of a disaster.

But even before starting the activity with Oxfam’s support, myself and my other female colleagues had to convince the local elected officials that these activities were worth the investment and time. We explained to the officials that we are protecting our neighbourhood, that we as women are leaders and that we have a voice. Thankfully, local officials understood accepted our reasons for embarking on this activity.

What is the disaster preparedness committee of which you are a part?

We hold different positions ranging from communications, logistics, to disaster response. I am in charge of all activities related to finance. I am one of 10 women leaders that are part of the 30-member volunteer committee in our commune. The community elects each of the 30 members and the term for each member is subject to renewal every two years.

What did the outreach activities involve?

All 10 of us worked together to go to each home in a rural area with a population of about 1,000 people. We spoke to everyone in each household during a period of three months.

We walked to remote areas, not easily accessible even by a car or motorcycle. The journey was not easy, but our determination to share information about what to do during hurricanes or when it rains gave us the courage and motivation to continue.

What kinds of information did you share with the households?

One of the pieces of information we shared was that when it rains, the community should not throw trash in the streets as it will prevent the water from properly circulating. We told them to secure their documents (land titles, birth certificates, etc.), and to find a safe place to put their livestock.

Did people welcome you when you knocked on their door?

There were people along the way who didn’t want to speak with us. Some asked why 10 women were walking around. We found people who were not interested in listening to us, but we tried to find a way to connect with them and shine a light on the issues.

Given the difficulties, what was the most rewarding part of your duties?

The best part was that we would sometimes hear people talking about what they learned and spreading it through word of mouth.

Some of the other tangible results we have observed since these door-to-door sensitisation activities are that my female colleagues are more confident and are really honing their public speaking skills. Often times in meetings they would be reluctant to speak up, but now more and more they are expressing their views more assertively.

It was difficult for many of them to participate as their husbands would question where they were going. I would receive many phone calls from their spouses who wanted to verify that indeed their wives were participating in the activities with me. After a few weeks, their husbands stopped calling me and had more trust in what we were doing.

Despite these obstacles to participating, why do the women want to remain involved?

When I asked [my fellow committee member] Elise why she explained to me that:

“I have a generation to take care of.  If I do it for someone, then that person will spread the information and others will do the same.”

It is that unwavering spirit of community that binds us together and keeps us focused on the equipping our compatriots with critical information to build stronger communities.

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