Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Making Women A Priority: Thinking About Women and Pushing for Equal Rights in Haiti

By Josette Perard 

On March 8, 2012, women throughout the world celebrated International Women's Day. On that day in Haiti, various women's groups convened and held meetings to reflect on the struggles of women in Haiti and discussing: how women can take the lead to obtain their rights, the work being performed, and where current struggles exist.
In these various celebrations, women did not miss the opportunity to commemorate the memory of women who died in the earthquake on January 12, 2010. This included the great champions of Haitian women's rights Magalie Marcelin, Miriam Merlet, Anne-Marie Coriolan, and Gina Porcena all of whom were among the countless others who disappeared in the disaster.

In Port-au-Prince, the Ministry of Women organized a forum on women's issues and the Haitian Women's Solidarity Organization (SOFA) had a march calling for women's worker rights. In rural communities where Lambi Fund works, women took the initiative to meet and to reflect on the situation of women in Haitian society and to discuss how they could make claims to obtain their rights as citizens. The current situation of exploitation, discrimination and mistreatment of women in Haiti is complex. It can be seen everywhere deeply rooted in daily practices — it is an underlying issue and continued crisis in both civil society and politics.
Some discrimination carries the trademark of the feudal system of the 19th century, where little girls serve as restaveks (a form of indentured servitude) to the lady of the house, among others.
This exploitation runs deep in Haitian society — it is deeply engrained in historical and social contexts and is a phenomenon without an easy solution. As all phenomenon, there will be no real solution until the root causes in social relationships are addressed. To come to the end of slavery, the revolutionaries of Saint Domingue had to destroy the relationship of master/slave. So must the feudal republic the women of Haiti are relegated to, be changed.
Looking back, we can see that many advocates of women's rights in Haiti have led the way. There was a time not too long ago that women could not vote and were not afforded the same rights as men.
Today, for the most part, men and women enjoy equal political, economic and social rights on paper under Haitian law. While these rights are not always fully implemented in civil society, it is important to recognize and appreciate that strides have been made in a legal context. For example, in 1944 women earned the right to hold public office and in 1950, women throughout Haiti finally earned their right to vote.
"The dialogue must first open up if there is any hope for genuine change within society."
Passing of the 'rape law' was a landmark moment for women in Haiti. Legislation was passed in response to pressure from women's groups calling for reform on the way rape was treated in the legal system. Under this law, rape is now considered a criminal offense and forced sexual activity is grounds for a prison sentence. Despite this prevalence of women's victories in the legal system, women's social reality weighs heavier than the laws in place.
For most Haitian women, this workload at home where their role is cooking, cleaning, farming, caring for the children and following the orders of their husbands. Why does this traditional role continue to be the norm? Well, there is little space for liberation in Haitian society. Norms and tradition persist and productive forces tend to get squashed. Despite headway made for women's rights in the legal system, many antiquated customs continue to repress women and their rights.
For instance, under Article 199, a woman can not undertake any legal action without judicial authorization from her husband. Under Article 201, a woman is unable to give away, mortgage or buy property without the written consent of her husband. In order to override this, a woman must seek authorization from the Dean Court of Civil Cases.
Quite simply, this means that Haitian women do not have the freedom to make decisions for themselves. There is a tendency to portray women as second-class citizens. Aggression and abuse against women pervades throughout society. At the Rara carnival, musicians promote many old norms of women in their music. A popular old Haitian proverb babò tribò depicts a dirty image of women saying: beautiful women are evil, therefore they fall into poverty as punishment. Another proverb likens Negro women to cashews. The more men have in their pocket, the better…
When a woman does work at a business or factories in Haiti they are paid less for doing the same work as men. In the family, especially in rural Haiti, boys are more likely to attend school than girls. Girls are meant to stay at home for domestic work.
Women are not appreciated as being the pillars of the economy. Women cultivate the fields, tend gardens and sell goods as venders in the market, yet all of this work is regarded as an "informal economy." Most men in society do not recognize this as meaningful work. Few women vendors receive respect; their goods are frequently stolen and many customers purposefully short-change them.
Clearly, equality for women as it is written on paper does not play out in Haiti.
Given this reality, average women must unite to make their voices heard. Both in the cities and in the rural communities, citizens must begin meeting to discuss the rights and duties of women in Haitian society. The dialogue must first open up if there is any hope for genuine change within society. For the Lambi Fund of Haiti, the aim for gender equality is a deep commitment.
As an organization, Lambi Fund recognizes the role that it can play in supporting and promoting positive social change. In this sense, Lambi Fund takes pride in supporting numerous women's organizations throughout the country. In partnership with these organizations women are learning how to breed goats, building grain mills, receiving the training and capital needed to manage credit funds, and reforesting hillsides to name a few of the many initiatives these female leaders are undertaking.
In addition to supporting a variety of projects that build women's capacity and increase their incomes, Lambi Fund proudly facilitates discussions about women's rights and gender equality. Lambi Fund recognizes that empowering women is just one piece of the puzzle. Men too must be invested in this social change.
They must see the importance in training women, providing them with leadership roles and in viewing them as equals. If men are not on board and proud of their wife's newfound independence and economic success they will feel as though their role as husband and provider for the family is being encroached upon.
Investing in Rural Haiti Yields Results
With this in mind, Lambi Fund hosts regional semi-annual Gender Equity Conferences in rural Haiti. These conferences provide men and women with the opportunity to discuss gender roles and norms in society. Participants receive training on not just the rights of women, but they also engage in a variety of discussions about how they can work to support one another — including how women can help to play a positive role in Haitian society.
The feedback from these conferences has been overwhelmingly positive. Both male and female participants say the forums provide a safe and productive outlet for discussing changing gender roles in their communities and that they are now equipped to meaningfully address concerns head-on.
That being said, the exploitation of women and repression of women's rights is widespread. While small, these conferences and the work of women's groups throughout the country are working to slowly turn the tide. This important work needs continued support because the voices of thousands of women throughout Haiti deserve a platform to voice their concerns and assert their rights.
When the struggle of women's rights is recognized within civil society as they have been granted in a legal sense, deep changes that benefit the whole of society will finally take place.

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