Additional Coverage Special Report—Haiti
This story is just one article in our special report on Haiti's women's movement.
We'll be adding more stories in the coming weeks—for now, take a look at other articles in this series.
• Internationally acclaimed author and memoirist Edwidge Danticat on her homeland, post disaster.
• View photographer Nadia Todres's powerful photo essay, Documenting the Lives of Girls in Haiti.
• Read Didi Bertrand's column, Bearing Witness: Girls and Women in Haiti's Camps.
• Take a look at SPECIAL REPORT: Haiti Elections—Why Vote for a Woman? to read interviews with Haiti's three female presidential candidates to learn more about their platforms.
• Read the first story in this series, SPECIAL REPORT: Haiti, Women, and the Elections, which takes an in-depth look at women on the ground and the upcoming elections.
• Read World Pulse and Anne-christine d'Adesky's previous coverage on the earthquake, Holding Up Haiti: Women Respond to Nightmare Earthquake, published shortly after news broke of the devastating earthquake.
Haiti: Honoring the Ancestors
“It’s hard to express how much pain we carry because of how much we loved and respected these women. They were our leaders. It is not going to be possible to replace them, but we are going to try to follow in their footsteps,” said Pierre-Paul, who stepped in to fill the void left by Coriolan.
The expectations and pressures new directors face are “simply enormous,” she says, and there’s been little time to absorb a steep learning curve.
“Where do you even begin?” asked Pierre-Paul in January. But her answer is clear: “Wherever and however we can, as long as we begin somewhere. The point is to act and to follow our principles.”
Honoring the Ancestors
SOFA suffered less damage to their offices, but still had to camp outdoors to receive visitors. The overnight parade of possible donors and well-wishers has slowed, but only a bit now. Some showed up on March 8th for an International Women’s Day celebration to “Honor the Ancestors” that allowed Haiti’s women’s groups to collectively celebrate their lost leaders and the thousands of unknown women who perished on January 12th with a public monument in their honor. For some, that day provided symbolic closure, an end to the ongoing wake, and an initial emphasis on relief work. They’re refocusing on their primary mission: gender advocacy and empowerment.
Kay Fanm is one of several organizations working to help women in camps to respond to the issue of sexual violence. There, Yolette Gentil has stepped up to fill the big shoes left by Magalie Marcelin, Kay Fanm’s founder. Their office in the capital was badly damaged in the quake, and for weeks on end, Gentil sat near Magloire at the Rights and Democracy courtyard-cum-tent field office. But the crisis of rape forced her team back to their old office because many women were showing up there for emergency services. Having lost computers or cell phones, and with staff members in shock, they tried to cope.
“We were really scared to work in the building because it’s really cracked,” she admits, as she looks over at the damaged walls. “We installed everything in the conference room on the first floor. It’s temporary until we find another place.”
Such logistical challenges underscore the difficulties women’s groups face in resuming their work. But many, like Kay Fanm, have succeeded.
“Violence against women didn’t start with the earthquake, and it will not change until there is a profound change in the mentality of men about how to treat women,” states Gentil, laying out Kay Fanm’s post-quake plan of action to date.
“With the help of the Canadian embassy and UNIFEM, we were able to give first aid kits and primary need kits,” Gentil says. They’ve also continued to offer legal, medical, and psychosocial help to sexual violence survivors, and to offer shelter for adults and young children. In a setback, one of their adult shelters was destroyed. But their shelter for young girls is open and, she reports, “We are receiving girls up to 15 years old. We try to empower them and to keep them in school, and we also teach them some manual professional skills.” She adds, “I think we’ve been successful in helping,
but it’s always with limited means.”
The little success, in this case, includes helping 40 young mothers under the age of 18 secure credits to start small businesses. With a half-million Haitians displaced, 40 barely registers. But to those girls and their children, it’s been a lifeline.
The Big Four
Across the women’s movement, there’s consensus on what the biggest priorities are: security and shelter, health, women’s education, and work opportunities. Survival essentials like water and food are less urgent because of international relief efforts. Yet food packets aren’t enough to feed families, and their cooking and bathing areas aren’t secure from rapists.
Kay Fanm is a member of CONAP, one of the larger leftist coalitions that include SOFA, Rights and Democracy, and groups like Fanm Deside (Women Decide) in Jacmel. These groups have a sharp political analysis of why the reconstruction plan isn’t working and why foreign aid can’t substitute for jobs or education. As leaders, their work is to put pressure on larger parties, including the government, to deliver these priority services. But to create the pressure, they also need the voices of many women. And in the wake of the earthquake, there are a lot of women who are feeling acute pressure to speak out. The demand is there. What’s needed is organizing, grassroots style, at the very local level. . . .