By Shannon Clarke
Photos by Shannon Clarke
There aren’t too many reasons to bid on a pair of white cotton underwear with silver-craft glue writing – at least not many good ones. But at a silent auction last month at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, that’s exactly what happened. Participants moved beneath strings of underwear art hung like paper lanterns throughout the bookstore, scribbling their bids next to their favourite pair. Snapshots of Haitian women and girls hung between them, in a line of a completely different kind.
The auction was part of a fundraiser for We Care with Underwear, a Toronto-based foundation that collects and distributes underwear for women in crisis. The organization has distributed thousands of pairs of underwear to women and girls in Haiti and Toronto, no questions asked, no thanks necessary.
“It’s about doing something without expecting anything in return,” said Maggie Hayes who founded the project last year after a 7.0 earthquake devastated Haiti’s capital, killing an estimated 230,000 people, and leaving over a million others injured and homeless.
Last January, the most impoverished country in the Western hemisphere was ripped apart. Daily, in-depth coverage of the loss of entire families, homes and order kept Haiti on the minds and thoughts of billions of strangers in a position to help. Canadians alone donated more than $200 million to the relief effort- shipping food, water and medicine to survivors.
Hayes, a dedicated student of karma yoga, asked her friends Sandra and Jaffa Charles (a Haitian musician who performed at the fundraiser), what she could do to help.
“You could collect underwear,” said Sandra.
Hayes started last September and on the advice of her yoga teacher, she set out to collect 1,000 pairs. As friends, family, colleagues and a clothing store in the Beaches heard what she was doing, the underwear started to pile up.
Hayes collected 1,854 pairs of underwear for Sandra and Jaffa to take with them to Haiti and she continued to collect.
We Care with Underwear aims to provide women in crisis with “dignity and femininity”, two things, says Hayes, that are often forgotten when survival becomes the first priority.
“[Underwear] is something very simple and practical that we can overlook – something that isn’t available to everyone,” said Yogi Akal a supporter of the project who spoke at the fundraiser.
The organization’s mission statement of dignity and respect isn’t just a catchy tagline for a website. Hayes made sure to extend that respect in person, when she got the opportunity to go to Port-au-Prince herself (this time with 3,000 pairs), taking the time to help the women find and select the underwear they wanted, down to colour and style (black was a popular choice).
“I didn’t want to say: here take this, just because they needed it,” she explains.
I asked Hayes why the project only targeted women.
“Women, in times of crisis, suffer the most. They’re too busy taking care of everyone else,” she said “I wanted the project to have a specific focus.”
Only weeks after the earthquake, the CBC reported that women and girls in Port-au-Prince were being raped and harassed as they struggled to survive in the tent cities. Within months, the threat of sexual assault and gender-based violence had become the norm. A report by Amnesty International, Aftershocks: Women Speak out Against Sexual Violence in Camps, found more than 250 cases of sexual assault were reported just 150 days after the January 12 earthquake.
This disturbing trend has been echoed in Somalia this year, as refugees (80 per cent of whom are unaccompanied women) fleeing to Kenyan camps have become targets for rape and violence.
A year and a half after the earthquake in Haiti, the world has shifted its attention to more recent global tragedies. Hayes thought about expanding the project, setting out to distribute underwear in Pakistan. But without contacts like Sandra and Jaffa it proved a much more difficult task. For now, her focus remains on Haiti.
“Why not just Haiti? Haiti doesn’t get thought of enough.”
However, the project has distributed to women throughout Toronto where Hayes found there was also need for something so basic that most of us take for granted.
“Think of how embarrassing it is to have to go to the hospital without underwear, or have to steal underwear,” she said.
Hayes is going back to Haiti this fall to distribute more underwear and toiletries (“We are in desperate need of condoms.”) She is also taking with her four Canadian women and sewing machines, planning to start a sewing co-op for Haitian women to generate income.
Despite the millions of dollars pled and given to Haiti after the earthquake, the situation in that country has barely improved. On Hayes’ first trip to Port-au-Prince, she saw entire camps sharing one spigot of water. Where there was little electricity before, it is almost non-existent now. Health care centres were either damaged or completely destroyed during the earthquake and, according to the Government of Canada, “emergency response is not guaranteed” as there are not enough ambulances. Millions of Haitians are still living in what were assumed to be temporary tent cities.
So for Maggie Hayes, the opportunity to deliver the underwear in person is thanks enough. She urges other women to give back in this small way.
“It’s about women giving to women freely, with no attachments or expectations.”