More than anything else during my time in Haiti, I saw firsthand that women and girls are the pillars of their communities. They hold their families together and spark economic growth. Their health must be supported, their voices heard.

Even before making landfall, Hurricane Matthew was causing damage to an already fragile Haiti. Now, weeks later, as news trickles in from remote areas, we are learning of the devastation this category 4 hurricane brought to this island nation. Many of us want to help. The best way to do this is to donate to the organizations working closely with Haitians on the ground such as CARE and Hope Through Healing Hands. While these post-hurricane donations are vital, we must also keep tabs on long term needs. After initial attention drifts, the challenges remain. Two of the biggest threats are maternal and child mortality rates.

This September, I was included on a delegation hosted by Senator Bill Frist and his humanitarian organization, Hope Through Healing Hands, and the global poverty-fighting organization CARE. Our group traveled to see the health care services saving lives for women and girls in Haiti. We visited with and heard the stories of women and families who have benefited from family planning and economic empowerment programs. Stepping into this world was both an opportunity and a challenge. What seemed daunting at first, quickly evolved into incredible stories of hope and resilience. Our colleagues on the ground asked us only for one specific thing: Would we go back home and tell other people why these programs matter so much?

I think you know the answer.

In Haiti and some of the world’s poorest communities, women and girls bear the brunt of poverty. They are often the recipients of gender-based violence, and struggle to earn a living, attend school, or even visit a doctor.

Woman standing with her baby

As I type these words, the people of Haiti are enduring another catastrophic humanitarian crisis. Haiti lies less than 800 miles from the United States?—?a shorter distance than the drive from Houston to El Paso on Interstate 10 and yet there are those who would have us turn our backs on the suffering of these people, as if it were happening in another world. The psychological distance of Haiti seems to go beyond the reach of a willingness to act on their behalf. So, it begs the obvious question: “How far does a place have to be from us before the line of caring is drawn?” Once we consider these people our neighbors, our fellow human beings, there is no line. Bono has said, “Where you live should not determine whether you live or whether you die.” I’m with him.

The U.S. is one of the few countries with the capacity to improve the lives of our own citizens and also serve as a leader in helping improve the lives of our neighbors. Where we help and what we do for others really is a moral barometer of our political will. It actually defines us. We know we can’t do everything, but that should not prevent us from doing something. The lives of our neighbors in Haiti can be improved greatly by spending comparatively little. Most Americans don’t realize that we only spend one-third of one percent of our U.S. budget on global health. Less than a penny to the dollar to save the lives of millions in developing nations around the world.

In the rural areas of Haiti, health facilities are difficult to reach. Many women give birth alone at home because transportation to a clinic is either unreliable or non-existent. We visited with a local 48-year-old farmer named Ermicile Joseph. She delivered 11 of her 12 children at home. She had not known about best practices for expectant mothers or spacing out pregnancies. She told us, “I was having so many children because I didn’t know about family planning. After my twelfth child, community health agents came to my home and explained my options, including family planning, to me.”

Woman in a doctor's coat smiling at the camera

Financial empowerment is something else that adds immediate assistance to Haitian women in urban and rural areas. CARE has created Village Savings and Loan Associations throughout the country and we heard directly from members about their daily lives and why these groups make everything better. Women excitedly told us about their financial literacy and the opportunities they have attained. One small business owner told us, “The lack of services for us here makes life hard. Our savings and loan group brought great change to my life. Before, we were not able to save money, but because of this group, I was able save and to get credit! I could borrow money and start a business. Before, only the husbands had the opportunities. Now, I have opportunities.”

On the final day of our Learning Tour, we visited GHESKIO?—?the first institution in the world dedicated to the fight against HIV/AIDS. In Haiti, there is an undersupply of physicians, midwives and trained health professionals. At GHESKIO, we met with several women on the medical staff who had gone off to school in Canada, Europe and the USA, then returned to Haiti because, as one doctor said: “We are trying to make a difference.” Their commitment and dedication should not simply be applauded, but matched by our willingness to help as well.

Through the years, Gheskio has expanded its mission to include maternal and child health, family planning, adolescent health, sanitation, cancer screening, vaccinations, and vocational programs to combat gender-based violence. At the vocational training center, women are able to free themselves from gender based violence and poverty by learning how to build sustainable furniture and create beautiful textiles that can be sold at market.

Everyone should marvel at how most of these women struggle to be good citizens, mothers and providers. How could anyone not feel astonishment at their courage and determination?

More than anything else during my time in Haiti, I saw firsthand that women and girls are the pillars of their communities. They hold their families together and spark economic growth. Their health must be supported, their voices heard.

So here I am, back home, attempting to tell you why all these people and programs matter. The fact is, the programs are working. Slowly, they are working. But more must be done. Human rights should not be constrained by borders, and caring people can do their part in making the world a little less harsh and a little more humane. Please join me in advocating on behalf of the women and girls in Haiti and around the world. Ask members of Congress to maintain their commitment to maternal and child health and family planning programs. These are a lifeline for women and children in Haiti. We can put our compassion into action and together make a difference. Most importantly, the lives of infants, children, and mothers will be saved.

Images via Justin Estey/CARE


This article was written by Smart Girls Co-Founder, Meredith Walker. The article originally appeared on Amy's Smart Girls.