PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 5 February 2010 – UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman visited the Haitian capital yesterday, meeting with UNICEF staff, government leaders and survivors of the massive earthquake that struck here on 12 January.
At a makeshift shelter in downtown Port-au-Prince – where UNICEF and partners are delivering food, safe water and basic health services – Veneman noted that the vast scale of damage to Haiti’s already fragile infrastructure makes relief work extremely difficult. But she lauded the results achieved thus far in reaching quake-affected children and families with life-saving assistance.
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“It was really encouraging to see that humanitarian supplies are getting to those who need them the most, especially women and children,” said Veneman.
A children’s emergency
Indeed, UNICEF and other UN agencies – along with the Haitian Government and non-governmental partners – have been working around the clock here since 12 January. Their top priority is getting essential aid to displaced families living in camps, as well as orphaned and unaccompanied children.
Veneman pointed to a massive immunization campaign, launched earlier this week, as an example of relief initiatives targeting the youngest earthquake survivors. To prevent a second wave of illness and deaths, the drive aims to vaccinate some 500,000 children under seven against measles, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough.
Toll on families
Beyond the physical destruction, deaths and injuries it caused, the quake has taken a terrible toll on Haiti’s families. Thousands of children are either orphaned or separated from their loved ones. Having seen friends and relatives killed and injured, many of them are psychologically traumatized.
“There were an alarming number of children already without parental care prior to the earthquake,” said Veneman. “Now there are many more separated from their families.”
UNICEF is setting up safe centres where children can be registered, identified and eventually reunited with their families, receiving psycho-social support in the meantime. The agency and its partners are also providing assistance to orphanages and child-care centres.
‘Signs of hope’
Veneman visited one such centre, which was severely damaged by the quake, as was the school with which it is affiliated. (In fact, 90 per cent of schools in and around Port-au-Prince have been destroyed or severely damaged.) She observed that only about half of primary school-age Haitian children were in school before the disaster – making the reconstruction of the education system a high priority and a particular challenge.
Education was among the key issues that Veneman discussed in a meeting with Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. “Investing in education is an investment in the future of the country,” she said.
As relief operations continue, Haitians are starting to look to that future. To build back better than before, they will need a long-term commitment from the international community. Yet in the face of disaster, they have already shown tremendous resilience.
“Haiti, the most impoverished country in the Americas, has suffered a catastrophic tragedy,” said Veneman. “But there are signs of hope. Street vendors are selling food and clothing, and shops are beginning to open in buildings that were not destroyed. People are literally building their lives back out of the rubble.”