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.
• 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 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, Women, and the Elections: Following Africa's Lead
Gender Fault Lines
Whoever inherits the presidency faces the monumental challenge of rebuilding a country that remains in total catastrophe—and one that has become much more dangerous now for many women and girls. Haiti’s earthquake is impacting them along preexisting social fault lines of gender, inequity, and acute poverty—a common feature of disasters. New UN figures suggest two-thirds of the 220,000 killed were female, many being among the poorest, with rickety houses on hillsides that slid into ravines. Not surprisingly, many of the injured are now disabled women and girls who lost their limbs. A majority of newly homeless are women widows, single heads of household and orphaned girls caring for siblings. They live in squalid, badly overcrowded, overnight tent cities where armed men prey on women and girls at night, after daytime UN peacekeeper and police patrols vanish. The efforts by camp residents and women’s groups to increase protection has raised awareness, but guns rule.
“The sexual violence in the camps is another aftershock,” agrees Marie St. Cyr, a member of the Lambi Fund, a Haitian group helping women in camps and rural areas. “Women are terrified.” With elections nearing, women fear new violence—a pattern seen in previous elections. “Usually in Haiti during an election period, the insecurities become higher than usual,” says Soeurette Policar, Director of Lig Pouvwa Fann—the Women’s Rights League
“We need the government to put women in the center of their action plan or we fear it’s just going to get worse,” says St. Cyr, putting her finger on the women’s agenda.
Yet, as she acknowledges, sexual violence, homelessness and insecurity are hardly new to Haitian women. World Bank figures found that 70% reported suffering domestic or public violence – a figure that had increased, pre-quake. There were terrible rapes during the 2006 presidential elections, and rapes of Haitian women by Sierra Leone peacekeepers, reflecting women aren’t confident about the foreign men wearing blue helmets, either.
What Women Want
In interviews with women leaders and ordinary women in Haiti, protection from rape is continually mentioned as an urgent step for Haiti’s next president. But it reflects the deeper challenge: changing patriarchal attitudes, laws, and cultural traditions that enforce social inequity and tolerance of violence against women.
“After the earthquake, because the new priorities are food and shelter, there is a tendency to forget the legal equality priorities between men and women,” explains Dilia Lemaire, Director of Judicial Affairs at MOUFED, a women’s rights NGO in the Haitian capital. “The urgent situation is that the prejudice against women should not be forgotten.”
Today, Haitian women make up more than half the population—52% —and they are 57% of its agricultural workforce—an economic backbone. In urban cities, women dominate in the informal markets, working as ti marchann, or street vendors. They make less than half of men’s wages, on average. One factor: 60% of adult women are illiterate—a shocking statistic in a country an hour’s flight from modern Miami. In areas like property rights and land, laws also favor men, and husbands. That’s one reason why women earthquake widows may now be permanently homeless: not only did the family home or office collapse, but they may have lost their right to this property if it was in their husband’s name. Haiti’s administrative ministry collapsed, burying the country’s archives, adding to the mess of sorting through land and other titles. Some were in placage, or common-law marriages—a norm in rural Haiti, since it costs money to get legally married by a judge. Haitian property law recognizes officially married couples. Without a marriage certificate, a title to the land, a replaced ID card so they can vote, it’s harder to move forward—to secure a bank loan, credit for a small business, equipment or seeds—all the important rebuilding blocks.
That’s why candidate ‘Mami Manigat’, as many Haitians call her, says establishing paternity is a priority for her party. Feminists also hope to put real teeth into Haiti’s law against rape—itself a recent victory for the women’s movement—by prosecuting rape cases.
Still, they aren’t expecting that to happen easily, even with a woman at the helm.
Currying the Women’s Vote
In August and September, World Pulse interviewed over a dozen women leaders of key grassroots organizations. The more leftist plan to join the election boycott or help blockade the elections. Others are sitting it out. Still others plan to participate, but are focusing on Congressional races. For some, violence remains a big deterrent, including fear of drive-by shootings of voters in line that marred past elections. Travel is a huge impediment, since citizens are still required to vote where they first registered and so many are now displaced far from home. Money is a major hurdle: It’s very costly to run a campaign. Candidates do receive a bit of money from the CEP, but not much, they say. “We had a member of her group who was very excited about running,” said Policar. “She said, ‘This is not an election; this is a selection process, so I’m not going to run.’” . . .