By: Becca Stevens and Kimberly Williams-Paisley
The current situation in Haiti is being described as catastrophic. Hurricane Matthew, a category 4 storm, made landfall on the southern coast of Haiti Tuesday morning, killing more than 1,000 people across the country and damaging at least 28,000 homes.
Communities are under water, bridges destroyed and access to rural areas significantly diminished. The threat of cholera and other water-borne illnesses will be rising, and clean water will be hard to find.
We can’t stop thinking about Destine.
We met her last week, as part of a “learning tour,” led by Sen. Bill Frist, M.D., Hope Through Healing Hands and CARE. On the ground in Haiti, pre-Hurricane Matthew, we drove two-and-a-half hours outside of Port au Prince to the Central Plateau.
On the way, we passed hundreds of people by the side of the road. Some were trying to sell tired-looking vegetables in little pop-up markets next to rotting trash and sewage. Many lived in rickety roadside shacks on dirt, covered with sagging tarps in lieu of more stable options. When we pulled up to Project Medishare’s Clinic Marmont Maternity Center, the air of devastation shifted.
Destine Ebony, 28, lives in a thinly walled one room wooden house with a makeshift thatched roof and a dirt floor, just five minutes walk from the clinic. As a mother to four children, Destine has her hands full. Two of her kids are in school while the younger two stay at home (one of her toddlers, naked from the waist down, lay on a blanket on the ground under a tree while we were there). But Destine and her family have aspirations. Marc H’ Ansley, the oldest boy, dreams of becoming a doctor. The middle girl, a nurse. Destine knows they must stay in school to have even a chance at breaking their family’s cycle of poverty. She can barely care for the kids she has and cannot imagine the burden she and her family would face if there were more.
Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, with the highest maternal and child mortality rates in the region as well. The reasons for the continued challenges are complex, but driven primarily by poor governance, lack of basic infrastructure, inadequate access to health care services and a lack of needed funding. Gender-based violence, poor quality education, lack of nutrition and clean water and high poverty rates present huge obstacles for women and children in both urban and rural areas.
Fortunately, Destine and her family have one advantage. A community health agent (CHA) from Project Medishare travels out to check on her and her family regularly. While there, the CHA discusses the importance of nutrition, clean water, and family planning. Destine chooses Depo-Provera, an injectable, for her contraceptive. Her husband, a thin man with a bright smile, supports and agrees with this decision. Destine’s care through Project Medishare is directly provided by USAID’s international family planning funding, as it is as for hundreds of other women in the Central Plateau.
U.S. leadership in global health has saved tens of millions of lives over the last two decades, even though our investments in that area account for less than one third of 1 percent of the federal budget. In large part because of this kind of U.S. government funding, just before Hurricane Matthew hit, we saw many people like Destine beginning to get on their feet.
We visited communities creating their own micro-financing groups to protect and grow their money, and women, victims of violence and abuse, who were healing and becoming self-sufficient through vocational training.
We were told by several community leaders that recently the country had been able to shift its focus from disaster relief, following the devastating earthquake in 2010, to more long-term challenges, like health care, social enterprise, and maternal/fetal health. We never saw beggars. We saw people ready to work to pull themselves out of the proverbial mud. And yet, again and again, we heard a plea: Please don’t forget us. There is more to be done.
We believe it is our privilege as a nation and our calling as global citizens to continue to help lead global health initiatives. We believe it is our destiny as a nation to continue to be leaders in global health. We pray that this current crisis will soon pass, and we can focus again on equipping Haitians with the tools they need to succeed in the long term.
By fully funding the maternal and child health and international family planning accounts in the annual State Foreign Operations appropriations bill, the U.S. can continue to provide millions of women around the world with the support they need to time and space out their pregnancies in a healthy way, feed their children, keep their kids in school, combat poverty, and promote gender equality in Haiti and around the world.
We know that Congress faces difficult funding choices in a constrained budget environment, but we also want our elected officials to know that they have a strong constituency of support here in Tennessee and across the nation led by Hope Through Healing Hands’ Faith-based Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children. This bill is a tangible way to advocate for women, like Destine, coming out of the storm.
Rev. Becca Stevens is the founder of Thistle Farms, an Episcopal priest, author and speaker. Kimberly Williams-Paisley is an actor, director and author.
This article originally appeared on The Tennessean.
Photos courtesy of Justin Estey/CARE.