FranÃ§oise Gruloos-Ackermans is the UNICEF Representative in Haiti.
Words fail to describe the scale of the devastation caused by the earthquake that struck Haiti six months ago. The earthquake provoked a unique emergency, striking its most densely populated centre, claiming more than 220,000 lives and forcing 1.6 million into displacement. It flattened the seats of power, and it also was the single deadliest disaster for the United Nations, who lost over 100 staff.
More expressive than the facts and figures of damages and losses incurred however, is the potent imagery of children who still talk superstitiously of le grand serpent–the great snake–that slithered angrily underground, bumping up against their homes and schools, reducing them to dust and rubble. Even now streets remain littered with the debris of destroyed buildings, making it difficult for children to find a visual escape from their memories of disaster.
UNICEF was blessed none of its staff were among the victims, but all were directly affected, as many lost close family members or someone they knew or loved. We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude and I am humbled by their exemplary dedication to the cause of children in Haiti, as they spared no effort to get relief organized from the very first days–when often they were themselves sleeping in the streets, in tents, in cars and among the displaced.
We are also in debt for the unparalleled show of support UNICEF received from its partners, donors and supporters. Millions of people responded and sent contributions to help us help the children and women of Haiti. This global wave of solidarity also testifies to the strong confidence UNICEF inspires through its mission for children and its readiness to deliver in the face of daunting challenges. It also underlines the obligation we have to direct these resources towards those children that need it the most.
Some of the milestones at six months are truly remarkable. So far no increase in malnutrition has been recorded and we have also not seen any major disease outbreaks despite huge challenges in health and sanitation. A lot of these results were possible thanks to the strong sense of common purpose and partnership uniting the Government of Haiti, the United Nations, the international community and the people of Haiti themselves, as first responders.
At the same time, the earthquake exposed the divides within society and the deep-seated vulnerabilities of those who for so long had been invisible and were on the brink of being forgotten. Indeed, le grand serpent not only cracked the window, it shattered the walls that separated society, bringing darker issues and vulnerabilities to light. Beyond the bond of shared experience therefore, the earthquake led Haitians to confront deeper issues and inspired a common aspiration for change.
What has emerged is a strong sense of momentum that we need to carry forward. One example is the nationwide movement for learning, which is reflected in the Government’s plan for recovery. Also, while the earthquake certainly exacerbated challenges in child protection, it shed a new light on the plight of children, rallying people to renew efforts to remove them from harm’s way and give them a chance to grow up in dignity and with hope for the future.
With this new momentum there is ground to be optimistic, but our optimism must be guarded, as for many the situation remains more than precarious. Children still need our undivided attention and efforts must continue with the same sense of urgency. Too many children and women are still living in unacceptable conditions, with too little water and no access to proper sanitation. Too many infants and children under-five remain exposed to vaccine-preventable diseases. Too many children are out of school and vulnerable to physical and sexual violence, exploitation and child trafficking. Too many youth and adolescents are seeing opportunities and livelihoods pass them by.
One thing is certain however, not only are Haitians resilient, they are also proud and hopeful. Surrounded by rubble, people are standing up–women, mothers, fathers, children–and UNICEF’s role will be to help Haitians stand up together, to turn their hopes into reality, and to ensure that children grow up with access to the full range of services they need to survive and thrive, reaching their full potential to contribute meaningfully to the development of their nation.