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.
• Read an assessment of the earthquake's impact on Haiti's women's movement in Honoring the Ancestors.
• 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.
• 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.
SPECIAL REPORT: Haiti—Why Vote for a Woman?
"So many women tell me that I realized a dream that they could not reach themselves."
Mirlande Manigat: Rassemblement des Démocrates Nationaux Progressistes, RDNP (Assembly of National Democrates)
In Haiti, they call her ‘Mami’ Manigat and ‘Pwofese’—Mama Manigat, or The Professor. At 71, Mirlande Manigat is well known to Haitians, having served a brief stint as First Lady when her husband Leslie took office briefly in January 1988 before a June coup toppled him. This August, Manigat's husband retired after 27 years as head of the Rassemblement des Démocrates Nationaux Progressistes, or RDNP, paving the way for his wife to become the front-runner in the 2010 Fall election. A respected Constitutionalist with a PhD in political science from the Sorbonne and expertise in international relations, Manigat served as Vice-Rector at Quisqueya University. She’s widely respected as a scholar and politician, even by critics who aren’t excited about the RDNP’s platform.
Mme. Manigat spoke to us about why she’s running, what she hopes to do, and why she plans to defy critics who believe she’s a shadow puppet for her husband’s ambitions.
On what ideals was the RDNP party founded? What type of people support you?
We were founded in 1979. It’s a Christian Democratic party affiliated with Christian democracy in America. We believe in democracy; we believe in social justice. We believe in a type of economic development which makes synergy between the state and the private sector. We believe that capitalism as an instrument could perform really well in Haiti—provided that the state itself can have a look over all the economic and financial activities. But we believe in freedom of economic activities—private investment—not only of Haitians but also foreigners, and in international relations. We believe that we have to pay attention to the geopolitical fact that we are in the Caribbean and on the American continent, which means that we have to continue relations with the two big powers on the continent, Canada and the United States, and that we have to look to other countries.
What is the RDNP platform for women? What does RDNP offer to women that other parties don’t?
Maybe for the elections, people are supporting Mme. Manigat more than they are supporting my party—as they did for my husband.
We used to think that there is no unique female condition in Haiti—we have diverse conditions, depending on precisely the background. We believe in full equality between men and women. I can’t compare my situation to the situation of a woman who is selling food on the street. Because of the general situation of the country, my daughter will not have the same future as I had. That’s the reason why we have a sector of the party which is essentially involved in politics favoring women.
I was a sub-Secretary General, and because of my university preparation and international relations, I was appointed to look after the external relations of the party. Three years ago I was elected Secretary General when my husband pulled out.
How does your party participate with women’s organizations?
Women represent 52% of the population, but we don’t have representation in the field of politics. My party has done its utmost in order to correct that, [but] I must confess that we didn’t get many results. My husband was the first president to create the ministry of the female condition.
When election time arrives and we have to nominate candidates, we don’t find many female candidates. For instance, for the legislative elections, we have only three female candidates. We organize seminars; we give political lectures. I personally published a book on the female situation in Haiti as far as females in politics and social involvement. I personally participate in seminars with many female organizations. But in spite of all that, we don’t have the results that we need.
As Secretary General, I reproach male militancy. Men find alternative reasons to explain why women aren’t involved. Maybe the women don’t have time, maybe they aren’t interested, maybe they have to look after their children, their house, etc. But the main reason is that men are reluctant to have women come to meetings. Why don’t members of the party encourage their sisters and mothers to come with them? I’ve been working with this party for the 31 years that it exists. People got accustomed to me—my presence, my activities. But I’m not sure everyone accepted my election as Secretary General.
My husband is someone else. He enjoys such national prestige that it would never occur to someone to challenge his authority. They don’t challenge mine—apparently they accept my position as Secretary General. But there is still this kind of Haitian mentality: If I do something that they don’t agree with, they would not say, but they would think, ‘She’s a woman.’
What about women’s political participation?
Women aren’t tempted to get involved in politics. They were given the right to be candidates since 1946, but could only vote beginning in 1957. I think they use that right. But getting involved in politics means being an active member in the party, and particularly, being a candidate for an elected post. There is dissuasion coming from male family members—the father, the brother, the husband. The men believe that even though they can work with other women, they are reluctant to encourage a female to get involved. There is still a perception of politics in Haiti being something dirty, physically dangerous, and especially dangerous to the morals of a woman. It’s true, politics may be dirty, but not especially so for women. The perception is that it’s even more dirty for women.
The third reason is that it’s very difficult for a woman to organize a campaign—for many reasons. In Haiti, everybody kisses everybody, there is a kind of familiarity that’s been developed. A man in Haiti, and elsewhere, during the campaign, he can kiss everybody: men, women, children, babies, and so on. It’s natural. A woman can’t do that. Her education forbids her from being too familiar with men.
What does a woman have to do as a candidate?
If she speaks only French, that won’t do. If she speaks only Kreyol, that won’t do either. People find it quite natural that a woman speaks about babies, birth control, conditions of mothers, violence against women. But people are pretty surprised listening to women who speaks about roads, about electricity, about technology, about agriculture. Those are not specific topics relating to female conditions. But she can speak about babies.
A woman who wants to be elected, she needs money. I tell young women candidates that, in spite of my age, I don’t visit people in order to get money—I send letters. If a man gives you an appointment at 5:00 in his office, it’s not normal.
What are female voters looking for in a candidate?
The feminist movement has a slogan they have used for other elections, and they are ready to use it again: Fanm vot Fanm. Women vote for women. I can’t be against that, but I told them before, I still think that it’s a kind of radical slogan. I don’t think that people should vote for women because the candidate is a woman. I think that women should have the opportunity to assess the validity of the candidate. I am not voting for that person because she is a woman, but because I agree with her platform. It seems to me that it impedes upon the freedom of the woman voter.
What are the most important issues to them?
Any candidate who is male or female, who would like to be elected, has to propose that he or she is going to do the best in order to change the female condition. There’s sexual violence—the rape of young girls and boys. There’s also prostitution. Legally we have equality between husband and wife, but equal pay for equal work—we don’t have that. The majority of the families are matriarchal in Haiti. The situation of unmarried women with many children,who may have four children by four different men, the society doesn’t protect those women. We have a civil court in Haiti that organizes civil marriage. Only 20% of the families are married according to the civil court.
Why should women vote for you? What’s one thing you would change as president?
First, I am a woman, and being a woman is an asset for me. Second, my age. People, they see me, and they call me Mami, and they presume, and they’re right, that because of my age, I have a fair knowledge of human beings, of politics—I have experience in life. They know that I have integrity, morality, and there are things that I would never do in terms of moral behavior, like corruption. Those women who are voting for me…women of my age or even younger, they are proud of me. And for them I am an example of success, because I have the knowledge, a woman who has a PhD in political science, a woman who has worked in different countries at university level, who has published a lot of books in constitutional matters and so on. So many of them tell me that I realized a dream that they could not reach themselves. But the young ones are different; they say, ‘Ms. Manigat, you are modern.’
If you were president, what are steps you might take to try to promote women's participation and rights?
I would push for some of the laws that were introduced to the Parliament that were blocked. For instance, about the search for paternity. A person can research ‘Who was my mother? but not ‘Who was my father?’ I would establish the legality of DNA research, which doesn’t exist in Haiti legally. I would promote equality for men and women.
I would [also] banish, and I have written on this many times, the free domesticity in Haiti. The system that we call restavek. Eighty-five percent of those young people are girls. It’s a global situation… It’s not slavery, I don’t go as far as saying that. But it’s something akin to a system which deprives a category of your population and the young vulnerable ones of freedom and well-being. It’s legal; it’s recognized by the labor court. You cannot legally recognize something that is so unacceptable.
Are women excited about the upcoming election? Will they participate?
I wouldn’t say they are excited. Nobody is excited in Haiti. Maybe that will change as it gets closer, but for the moment, no.
Are you confident that these elections will bring about change?
I am optimist that if I get elected, things will change. I know it’s hard because I have contenders who do have something that I don’t have myself, which is money. I don’t have as much money as they have, and that will count a lot in the forthcoming elections—not only for normal expenses, publicity, but [for them] to buy votes.
Critics say you wasted their votes when, in 2006, after winning the Senate election, you resigned. Why should they vote for you again this time?
Wherever I go in the country, whenever I have to make a speech for Haitians living abroad, this question will arise. For me it’s an honor. It means that people didn’t forget; that people still remember that [victory]. First of all, it’s not my husband who forced me. That's the perception: that a woman can’t freely make such a decision, that it has to be her husband who forced her. My husband was against that. My husband told me, ‘They will not forgive you,’ and they did not forgive me.
On two occasions the electoral council blocked me in previous elections. When they gave the first report, I had 342,000 votes. When they gave the final report, I had 280-something thousand, meaning I had lost 60,000 votes. Someone who was holding a high position in the CEP warned me, telling me, ‘Ms. Manigat, you are elected on the first ballot, but they are going to block you in the second. It was a political decision.’ People say they waited for two hours, three hours to vote for me. They say ‘Ms. Manigat, We are going to vote for you, but don’t do that again.’
Turn to the next page to read an interview with former candidate Claire-Lydie Parent. . . .