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Haitian Women and Elections: Presidents, Politics, and Power

Phalane Gilles says women leaders need to be "transfomative feminists" who can change "the economic foundation and the foundation of social relations." Photo: Beverly Bell.

Reconstructing Haiti is not about buildings, projects, or money. It’s about power, about who gets to control what the future Haiti looks like. Redistributing power, and creating a new society based on different theories and practices of it, are perhaps more important in the aftermath of the January 11 earthquake than ever.

This priority is not particular to Haitian women. But they are most often the ones propelling it, and they and their children have the most to gain from it because of the special burdens that poverty and insecurity place on them. For the majority of women, their work to transform power is focused on including the excluded: the peasants, the residents of internally displaced people’s camps and shantytowns, all those who have little voice or participation in national political and economic decisions and who rarely benefit from those decisions.

What could a new power paradigm that serves women look like? And how might a government emerging from the November 28 elections use its leadership to advance that paradigm? We asked Haitian women their thoughts on women, power, and the elections.

Elisabeth Senatus is a journalist and member of the coordinating committee of the Petite Rivière Shelter Center internally displaced people’s camp in Léogâne. She describes her work as “service to humanity.”

Some man made a declaration recently that he hopes a woman doesn’t win power, because if she does, all women are going to have power.

But me, I hope it’s a woman exactly for that reason, and because of the recent experience we’ve had with government. I don’t ignore the fact that there are men who have beautiful dreams and who have capacity, but still I hope we get a woman as president. The entire world over, men want to govern without women and prevent women from advancing. They want women to stay in the home as mothers and indentured servants.

All that women would do in terms of decentralization, development, education, health… a woman could do everything a man could do but with more attention to the needs of all society.

We need equity in education, at least as many girls in secondary and college levels. We need education - traditional, sexual, professional, family - which is at the base of social and economic power. We can address prostitution by letting girls have a chance at education. We want decentralization [from Port-au-Prince], with adequate work opportunities and government services and offices everywhere. We want to create opportunities for creativity.

If women take power, we’ll have a lot to do to educate everyone about women’s rights and responsibilities and gender equity.

But a woman doesn’t need to be president to have power. If a woman is strong and is educated and has the capacity to make decisions, that’s already power.

Claudette Werleigh is a long-time advocate for democracy, peace, and women’s empowerment. She has served as prime minister, minister of social affairs, and minister of foreign affairs. She is currently secretary general of Pax Christi International, and resides in Brussels.[1]

Haitian women participate in politics. We’ve already had a female president, we’ve had a female prime minister, cabinet ministers, secretaries of state, and parliamentarians. But an important consideration is the final goal. Will a politician seek to ensure that the market vendors on the roadside, the charcoal merchant, and the peasant woman living in the hills can participate in decisions that determine their country’s politics? Will she choose to spend public funds for education and housing? She is biologically the holder of life, but will she have policies in favor of life?

When we talk about women in politics, we should clearly define the type of women we’re referring to. Until all women in Haiti, not only the elite class, have access to the decision-making process, we can’t say that they really participate in the country’s politics.

Women’s involvement shouldn’t just be a matter of their presence, but of their ability to offer an alternative course or to introduce something that’s lacking. The whole world is organized so you have political parties, you have a president, you have specific ways for people to play their role in politics. We have to find other ways that women can participate. We have to find ways to bring the qualities that women have in other fields into political life, to make things work better.

Magalie Bretou is a member of the Regional Coordination of the South-west (KROS), a coalition of small-farmer organizations. She sits on the executive committee of the National Coordination of Peasant Women (KONAFAP), as well as the executive committee of the Coalition of Organizations for the Municipality of Belle-Anse (KODAP), which brings together women’s youth, and peasant groups. She also serves on the coordinating committee of KODAP’s women’s division.

In the municipality of Belle-Anse, we’ve made choices for two candidates for the national Chamber of Deputies [the lower house] from within our women’s and peasants’ organizations. We chose our candidates together, and we’re all going to vote for them. We decided to do this because we needed someone with accountability.

Both our candidates are men. No woman wanted to put herself forward in the elections. Maybe in the future that will happen, but we’d have to sit together as women and decide that.

We don’t know yet what candidate we’ll support for president. Whoever it is, we’ll all go vote for that person so that we don’t undermine each others’ vote.

It could be good for us if we had a woman president, but it would depend on who it was. She could be someone with a fancy skirt from Port-au-Prince who doesn’t even see us, who just says “This is how it’s going to happen,” and “That’s how it’s going to happen.” People in Port-au- Prince usually look to their own people in the capital; they don’t see us outside. Power will always be to their advantage. We don’t see ourselves reflected in them, as women or as peasants. They don’t represent an opening for us.

We don’t yet have a way for rural women to integrate into politics and into new forms of power.
What we need is leaders who come from the grassroots, who we can choose, train, and send up. Not just for some women, but for all women.

Lucienne Darger was rendered homeless by the earthquake. She is now a member of the women-run leadership committee of a displaced person’s camp on Camp Nationale Route de Frères.

The elections won’t resolve women’s problems. But to my mind, they have to happen anyway.

A lot of people say they won’t vote as long as they’re living under a tarp, but if I can get a new electoral card [she lost her last when her home was crushed], I’m going to vote.

We’ve had so many men in office, we took beatings for them, but they never did anything for us. When we’re here in these tents, not even able to breathe, I ask myself, “Is there no government in this country? What are they saying or doing for these women who are under these tents?”

If I had the chance to vote for a woman like me, I would. Even if she couldn’t resolve my problems, I might get more access that way. Maybe she’d have more compassion for women who are suffering under tents.

But even then, I suspect that when we’re done voting, she’d forget we’re there. All the new leaders: once they’ve gotten what they want from us, they won’t care any more that we’re living in camps. As soon as they are elected to the office they want, they’ll just forget us.

Phalane Gilles has been studying social work in the State University for the past five years. She is now finishing her dissertation on prostitutes who were former street children. A mother of two, Phalane doesn’t have to take on outside work because her husband is “very understanding” and supports the family while she studies. She considers her domestic work, however, as a regular job.

For me, the election that the government, politicians, media, keeps talking about: they make it seem like a sign of stability. But there are too many hidden hands in this. At the core, in this political moment, it’s just another opportunity for those who always control everything to hold on to their power. Whoever’s elected, I believe they’ll continue to be instruments of the imperialists and capitalists, people who want the country to stay how it is -or if it changes, to change in the interests of a few people while the majority stays in the same misery they’re in.

What little I know about the Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti [the surrogate government, half of whose members are foreign] tells me that the head of state doesn’t have the space to really make a difference in Haiti. The president of the country is a marionette. He proves that by his positions toward those people who are supposedly coming to help Haiti. He gives in, he gives in. He seems like he’s working for the interests of the country, but in fact he’s working for those who only see in Haiti the possibility to increase their power and their wealth. We know there are contracts going to multinational corporations who have their own profits in mind. So whether it’s the administration that’s there now or another that takes power, the interests of the foreigners and of those who have nothing to do with the well-being of Haiti will predominate.

We’ve seen political changes in terms of women: more women in the parliament, even if it’s only a few; more women active in parties; more women who are agents of change in the political system. But most of these women –most, if not all- position themselves within what they call feminism which, to me, is not true feminism. Why? Feminism which don’t consider first and foremost the social reality of the country that both women and men are living in, to me that’s not transformative. Transformative feminists don’t just deal with women, they question what’s at the core of all problems.

The soul of women’s problems rests within society. Women’s problems aren’t contained within women; they’re living within a larger society. As long as the economic foundation and the foundation of social relations don’t change, nothing else will. As long as a few control the finances of the country, the vast majority will suffer.

A true transformation of power to change political life in this country: it has to sit in a revolutionary movement. Some people don’t like the word ‘revolutionary’, they find it shocking because it implies changing a lot of things, and those changes are not in the interest of a lot of people. But if you don’t want to enter directly into the problem, whether you call yourself a feminist or not, we’ll always stay the same.

Iliane Prospère resides in an internally displaced people’s camp in Martissant. She is an unemployed, single mother of three.

To resolve the real problems of women, give us employment. Now if I need work, even if I had three diplomas, I would still have to sleep with the boss to get the job. If all women got work, women’s lives would start to change because they play the role of both women and men. Men are absent from the responsibilities of the household. Women are the pillar.

For more perspectives on women and elections in Haiti, see “Haiti: Why Vote for A Woman?” and “Haiti, Women, and the Elections: Following Africa’s Lead”.

[1] Claudette Werleigh’s narrative is taken from an interview she gave in 2000 for my book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance. When I wrote Claudette recently and asked I might reprint excerpts, she replied, “I can assure you that, a decade later, not only do I stand by every word I said then, but now that I have a broader experience, I am ready to extend those words to other fields of life.”

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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