The earth hasn’t stopped shaking for women: Haiti earthquake 14 years later

Lina AbiRafeh
3 min readJan 12, 2024
Carine and Lina, Haiti 2010.

On January 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake in Haiti killed nearly 300,000 people. In 35 seconds. I arrived a few days later. Today marks 14 years since that unforgettable day.

“It was 4:50pm. One doesn’t forget the time of such things,” a young woman named Carine told me. “I was on a small public bus coming back from university when the earthquake struck. The bus stopped. Buildings were crumbling all around us. There were so many dead and wounded. Red rubble — that is what I saw.”

Haiti is no stranger to conflict or violence or disaster. But this was death and destruction on a whole new level. Thirty-five seconds that brought an already-weakened Haiti to its knees. Before the earthquake, women’s needs and risks were massive. Afterwards, they were much more urgent. We’d imagine natural disasters impact us all equally, but that’s not true. Women feel the shocks long after the earth stops shaking.

“I lost family members. Our house was crushed,” Carine continued. “We were not able to save anything.” She paused. “Not. One. Thing.”

Carine was one of 1.3 million Haitians displaced and living in makeshift camps. Hastily assembled feeble shelters had sprung up like mushrooms after the earthquake, made of plastic scraps and broken pieces of corrugated iron, covered by white tarp with aid agency logos. Wherever I looked, there were people, everywhere, idle, wondering what they were supposed to do now, now that they’d lost everything.

“Before the earthquake, I wanted to be a journalist,” Carine told me. “Now I can’t study — my university doesn’t exist. And yet I still go there and see other students all around — as if they are waiting for the university to spring back to life. The earthquake… it tore up our futures.” From a young university student to homeless in under a minute.

“Violence against women in Haiti,” she explained, “it has always been there. Since the beginning. We’ve known so little peace. Violence is the norm. If it’s not war, it’s disaster.” She waved her hand as if to say: Look, disaster.

My eyes followed her hand, moving across the camp. Conditions were brutal — no privacy, hardly any lighting, sanitation facilities few. And violence — always violence against women and girls. Even if it wasn’t taking place in front of you, you could smell the fear of it in the air.

“The problem is that no matter how things happen for us, it always happens worse for women. Violence against women continues even when conflicts and disasters do not.”

In every single emergency I have ever seen, women’s rights are violated and need to be renegotiated and protected as if their rights never existed. As if their rights did not have a right to exist.

And now, fourteen years later, how does Haiti fare?

In recent years, the country has grappled with the assassination of its president, massive civil unrest, yet another earthquake and Tropical Storm Grace in August 2021, extensive gang violence, a fuel shortage, and a resurging cholera outbreak. Gang violence in particular has had serious impacts on communities — and on women. Gang attacks have forced 200,000 people to leave their homes. And, more than 2500 Haitians were killed last year alone. Kidnappings are also on the rise.

Life for Haitian women continues to be a challenge. Following the 2010 earthquake, sexual violence increased dramatically, with women and girls as targets. Overcrowded camps and lack of adequate sanitation facilities created the conditions for sexual violence to be perpetrated with near impunity. Poor lighting in camps and a shortage of police patrols also increased women’s vulnerabilities.

Today, nearly half of Haitian households are led by women. Women are the majority of the informal economy, surviving as street vendors in order to make a living. And, they remain increasingly vulnerable to all forms of violence, fueled by rampant inequalities. Particularly sexual violence. In short, fourteen years later, women and girls fare no better.

“If I could do one thing, right now,” Carine told me in 2010, “I would help women take charge of their own bodies and protect them. When women are safe, they are free. And when women are free, Haiti is free.”

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights expert, author, speaker, aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!