Women struggle to carry 55-pound bags of rice given out Sunday in Port-au-Prince.
Women struggle to carry 55-pound bags of rice given out Sunday in Port-au-Prince. David Schaper/NPR
After struggling to get food to the Haitian earthquake survivors who need it most, international relief agencies are now using a new distribution system that focuses on giving the food to women.
They have also divided up the city of Port-au-Prince and the surrounding areas, establishing 16 food distribution points, in hopes of getting food to those most in need more efficiently.
At one of the sites, in an area of Port-au-Prince known as Canape Vert, 1,700 people began lining up just after dawn Sunday.
Most in the two long lines that stretched down the hillside were women, who had been given tokens — paper tickets, really — the day before by local community leaders working with the Irish aid organization GOAL.
"We have 11 Haitian staff that we work with to go to each of the different sites, the different communities that are here in this particular zone that we need to work in," explained GOAL's James Kelly. "We go and we give out those 1,700 tokens each day, and then the following day, each of those people that have a token in their hand know that the distribution will start here between 8 and 9 a.m."
Organizers say they are giving food voucher tickets almost exclusively to women because previous food handouts were sometimes disrupted by young men pushing their way to the front of the line or taking the heavy bags of rice and other dry goods away from women.
They also say women are more likely to ensure that children get enough to eat.
Therese Nozile, 66, waits in line for food. She said she and her family had not received any food distributed by relief organizations yet, and have been living off borrowed bread and sugar water.
Therese Nozile, 66, waits in line for food. She said she and her family had not received any food distributed by relief organizations yet, and have been living off borrowed bread and sugar water. David Schaper/NPR
"Our experience around the world is that food is more likely to be equitably shared in the household if it is given to women," Marcus Prior, a spokesman for the United Nations' World Food Program, told The Associated Press.
Reaching The Needy
Until now, relief organizations have been struggling to get enough food delivered to the hundreds of thousands of homeless and hungry people — and many haven't been reached.
Among them is Therese Nozile, 66, who is caring for her grandchildren after their parents were killed in the earthquake.
Standing in line and holding her food ticket tightly in her hand, Nozile said she hadn't received any food assistance yet. The family had been living off borrowed bread and sugar water. So she was relieved to be getting a 55-pound sack of rice.
But Nozile said through a translator that she has no money to buy other foods to mix with the rice, so it won't last long.
"Yes, it will be problem," she said.
The food line was orderly, and protected by a heavy military presence that now includes U.S. soldiers with the U.N. peacekeepers and Haitian police.
Near the head of the line, Nadine Jeudi, 23, said she likes the new process.
"This way is a good one," Jeudi said through a translator. "Better than before. No pushing."
A woman carries off a 55-pound sack of rice given out on Sunday.
A woman carries off a 55-pound sack of rice given out on Sunday. David Schaper/NPR
But Jeudi said she only found out about the new food distribution program by word of mouth. That concerns her, because "some people don't know about the distribution."
And just as the morning heat began to sear, so did tempers, as a few hundred people without tickets, mostly young men, stood in the street glaring and sometimes shouting at organizers through a wall of U.S. and U.N. soldiers, asking why only women could get the rice.
But it was not only men being kept away from the food line: Among them was a young woman, five months pregnant.
"I don't have any food because everything is about the cards [food tokens]," she said. "If you don't have a card, they don't give you any food."
Organizers tried to tell those without tickets their turn will come — that the food tickets are being handed out one neighborhood or one camp at a time.
An angry young man shouts at an organizer during food distribution on Sunday. Aid organizations have switched to a system that favors women and the most vulnerable populations in distributing food.
An angry young man shouts at an organizer during food distribution on Sunday. Aid organizations have switched to a system that favors women and the most vulnerable populations in distributing food. David Schaper/NPR
Amid the ruckus, a young man noticed a slight and weary old woman crouched down on the curb in the shade. She clutched a food voucher in her hand, but had chosen to wait out of the hot sun. He offered to escort her to the front of the line, which the organizers allowed. After getting her rice, the woman struggled to move the 55-pound sack, and the young man returned and offered to carry it for her.
About 15 minutes later, the woman was back, telling NPR's translator that once they got out of the sight of the U.N. soldiers, he took off running with her rice. The organizers tell her they are sorry, but they cannot give her another bag.
Struggles At Some Sites
Eventually, the military peacekeepers moved those without tickets across the street, and after everyone with a ticket got a bag of rice, the frustrated crowd dispersed peacefully.
But it wasn't the only food distribution site where tempers flared. At the national soccer stadium in downtown Port-au-Prince, peacekeepers used pepper spray to keep a surging crowd out after the rice rations ran out.
There were other problems, too: Seven of the 16 distribution sites weren't ready to open Sunday as planned. Escalating gang violence made it too dangerous to open two of the sites, and five needed more preparation and better distribution of the food ration cards.
U.N. officials say all those sites should be open in the next day or two. Overall, they say, the distribution went well, and the glitches were inevitable.
The World Food Program hopes to distribute rice to 2 million people over the next two weeks. On day one, officials say they reached more than 100,000.