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A History of Haitian Women's Involvement (International Women's Day Part II)

Haitian women have a strong history of organizing for political rights and economic justice. Here, a meeting of the Women Martyrs of Ayibobo Brave. Photo: Roberto (Bear) Guerra

"We remember, we advance," read the marble plaque to the employees of the women's ministry who were killed in the Haiti's January 12 earthquake. Surrounding the plaque on the rubble-filled lot where the ministry stood until two months ago, hundreds of women gathered on International Women's Day, March 8, to commemorate those they lost in the earthquake and to express their determination for a more just future. Other gatherings and marches took place throughout the country, from the streets in front of the destroyed national palace to rural villages.

Throughout the day, in public proclamations, private conversations, and strategy sessions, women continued their long tradition of advocacy and activism for a more just and equitable society and economy. With a renewed urgency, they demanded a different type of governance that is responsive to all citizens, and insisted that women participate actively at all levels in governance. One priority they articulated is for the state to assert itself within the international community-driven rebuilding process, and to create space for citizens to participate, too. They demanded housing for the homeless and displaced, who are estimated by the government to be almost 1.3 million. They insisted that their other social needs - including food, clean water, health care, education, and viable income - be met. This is particularly necessary, they said, for earthquake victims as well as for those in rural areas, who receive few to no state services.

They demanded protection against rape and other gender-based violence which has spiraled since the quake. The heightened incidence is due in large part to the numbers of girls and women living unprotected on streets and in camps, whose risks are augmented by the thousands of prisoners, including convicted rapists, who escaped from the National Penitentiary after the quake.

"We are ready to do everything possible to get our rights respected. We are ready to hold demonstrations, do sit-ins, circulate petitions, do advocacy," said Yvette Michaud with the National Peasant Movement of the Papay Congress.

Activism by Haitian women has roots stretching back through history. The first recorded act was in 1792, when Cecile Fatiman, a vodou priestess, helped lead the ceremony in Bois Caïman which launched the war of independence against the French slave owners. Marie Jeanne, Sanite Belair, and Marie Claire Heureuse were noted actors in that war, which won the only successful slave revolution in world history and which established Haiti as the first Black republic. Far more numerous were those women whose names were never recorded but who took part in the poisoning of slave owners; subterfuge on the plantations; marronage, escape from the plantations to underground camps from where attacks on the plantations were launched; and rebellions.

Records of women marching in the streets date back to 1930, when they demanded an end to the U.S. military occupation. Since that time, women have been present in a broad and active social movement whose priorities have included participatory democracy, human rights, equity in economic policies, guarantee of state services, national literacy programs, employment, and rural development. Women have been key to campaigns for trade policies which protect labor rights, the environment, and local production, and to campaigns against political and economic strong-arming by the U.S., the IMF, and the World Bank, among others.

Within this broad work for justice and rights for all people, women have been working to change gender relations of power so that they, too, can benefit from social advances. Recorded advocacy for women's rights can be traced back as early as 1820, when a group of wealthy women changed the law that deemed all women minors. The feminist movement was born in the 1930s with the birth of the Feminine League for Social Action. Composed primarily of middle-class intellectuals and professionals, the League and other groups that followed won legal and constitutional rights for women, including the right to elective offices (excluding the presidency) in 1944, and then full political rights, including the right to vote, in 1950. Yet repression and electoral fraud denied women, like men, a truly free vote until 1990.

The feminist movement historically did not incorporate poor women, either as members or as a focus of their advocacy. And because poor women were so socially disenfranchised, the political rights that the feminist movement won did not effectively include them. For example, for indigent and illiterate women - the great majority - the right to hold political office has been meaningless.

This changed under the Duvalier dictatorship, when distinctions between women were partially leveled because the regime denied political freedoms to all women, equally. Losing access even to the rights that existed on the books, wealthy women could not enjoy the fruits of their victories. The loss of privilege and safety moved the feminist movement into the national liberation struggle. By 1965, the women's movement effectively merged with the anti-dictatorship movement.

During the 1970s and 1980s, some women again began organizing around women's rights and other gender-specific issues. Once again, state repression was partially responsible, for it was in being forced into exile throughout the Americas and Europe that tens of thousands of Haitian women became exposed to rising feminist consciousness. In what sociologist Carolle Charles called the "transnationalization of Haitian women's struggles," the external feminist movement was brought back home.

The birth of the contemporary women's movement can be pegged to 1986, with the political opening that accompanied the downfall of the thirty-year Duvalier regime. Within two months of the dictator's departure there were two women's marches demanding justice for all Haitians in general and for women in particular. Almost 2,000 women marched in the remote village of Papay where a peasant movement had been organizing underground, while on April 3 in Port-au-Prince, more than 30,000 women from all social sectors took to the streets.

Over time, some women from middle and upper classes have transcended their class interests and made common cause with the poor. And a broad group of women eventually came to benefit from the legal rights won by feminists. Increasing philosophical and programmatic overlap has developed between the movements, though class tensions remain strong.

Throughout history, Haitian women have faced substantial opposition to their organizing. Much of this has been at the hands of repressive governments which have ruled the country almost consistently over its 200-plus-year history, and then intermittently during the past two decades. The means to keep women silenced have included gender-blind tools of repression, such as assassination, disappearance, arrest, and torture. During a military coup d'état against the first-ever democratically elected president in 1991, rape was also commonly used as a weapon of war.

Moreover, women's political participation and expression have been quashed by fathers and husbands who have forbidden them from becoming engaged or even leaving the home, as well as from other men who refused to allow them entrée into meetings or organizations. Women report that men - especially in rural areas - still occasionally prevent women from going to meetings, but this is increasingly rare. More common is that women's participation in political venues is thwarted because they are instead working, bringing water, cleaning, and cooking for other participants.

Some women have gotten around the challenges by meeting in secret or, as in the 1980s, organizing independently. They started women's sections of their peasant and worker collectives and their Christian base communities, or founded autonomous women's organizations. In the process, they have increasingly gained independence, identity, and a clear voice. They have emphasized their own needs and rights within the larger movement for social and economic justice.

In the past decade, the political potential of women in different sectors has grown through new coalitions, bringing together what has historically been a fractured and conflictive movement. One is the National Coalition to Advocate the Rights of Women (CONAP, by its Creole acronym), a grouping of eleven feminist organizations. Another is the National Coalition against Violence against Women, a working group of Haitian governmental, civil society, and grassroots groups, plus international agencies. The National Coalition of Peasant Women (KONAFAP) bridges many peasant associations. Other confederations have formed in the departments of the South-east and North.

Pressure from women both inside and outside of government has resulted in several important laws and decrees over the last decade. These include conventions against discrimination against women and against all forms of violence against women. The latter criminalizes rape and other forms of sexual aggression and violence, and toughens penalties for them. Advocates are still working to move these protections from paper to reality, while they continue to lobby for three other laws which protect women. These include rights for domestic workers, paternal responsibility, and civil and property protections for women in common-law marriage equaling those in legal marriage.

The movement for the rights of all citizens, and especially women, is often one step forward and two steps back. Haitian women have lost a lot through the earthquake. The economic status of the majority who were already poor has deteriorated, as has their physical security. Already weak, the state's ability to enforce women's rights - in the absence of functioning courts and justice ministry - now hardly exists. Gender consciousness remains nonexistent among many men. It is uneven amongst women, too, as evidenced during one International Women's Day march which snaked through the camps in the capitol. A woman at the front of the march broadcast this message by microphone, over and over: "Women, stop provoking the men to rape you by bathing naked."

At one International Women's Day event, this one held under tarps in the middle of a street and sponsored by a coalition of feminist organizations, Yolette Jeanty of Kay Fanm, Women's House, said the following. She was speaking of Magalie Marcelin, a leading rights advocate who was killed in the earthquake, but her message has broad application. "Magalie is not here and she is here. We are her feet. We are her words. We are her heart. We are her path. Magalie, we will carry you on."

Thanks to Maryse Jean-Jacques, Olga Benoit, and Carolle Charles for their help.

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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