Port-au-Prince, Haiti: It’s September, nearly nine months after the massive January 12 earthquake that leveled the capital in a 30-second spasm, irrevocably altering Haiti’s present and future. It’s post-twilight, and still hours before the dawn breaks, but the end-of-summer heat is stifling. The ever-present threat of rain marks the midpoint of the annual rainy season, and the first hurricanes have already spawned in the ocean, only to blow away elsewhere.
Across the darkened tent settlements that have turned Haiti’s biggest cities into giant homeless camps, underneath the open-air tarps that fail to ward off either mosquitoes or rain or rats, Haiti’s mothers remain awake but exhausted, ever vigilant for unwelcome noises. The nightly gang rapes they fear have become a daily headline and a pointed condemnation of the Haitian government’s failure to protect its quake-displaced female citizens from brutal sexual crimes.
Despite increased policing and the presence of UN security, life for Haitian women remains dangerous, cramped, and fetid.
And yet, some things are getting better.
Back in the tent city, to the women’s relief, the movement they detect in the night comes not from attackers, but from a patrolling brigade ready to escort women and girls to the latrines and bathing areas, where rapes commonly take place. Some women have secured not only whistles and underwear, but hygiene “dignity kits”—with soap and feminine products—from donor groups. Others carry UNIFEM’s new GBV contact card under the straps of their brassieres, rubber-banded alongside new citizen identity cards to replace those lost under the rubble: the proof they’ll need to vote in the upcoming November elections.
Counselors and nurses regularly stop by the camps to offer suggestions to help overcome the myriad hurdles to daily survival: access to clean water, food aid, or cooking fuel; prosthetics for the newly amputated; adequate shelter; job opportunities; education for the many displaced children.
This is the slowly recovering, steadily emerging face of Haiti’s women’s movement—a still-fractured, still-overwhelmed, but strong and vocal force for the post-disaster nation.
Like the rest of the country, Haiti’s women leaders have had to cope with major personal and organizational losses. They have been shocked, and they have acted, like everyone else, both quickly and with courage, and also too slowly, overwhelmed by the scale of what has been destroyed and must be rebuilt or simply can never be recovered.
“We must move on,” said Carole Pierre-Paul, the new director of SOFA, or Solidarity with Haitian Women, in the days after the earthquake. “We do not have the luxury of taking the time to think too much.”
Haiti’s women leaders agree that the situation is still too urgent to step away from providing the essentials—food, water, shelter, jobs—but the approach is shifting away from direct relief work, and more toward empowering women and the displaced to demand their rights. That includes the right to fully participate in the post-disaster nation building that is underway.
“We had a dramatic situation last January,” says Danielle Magloire, a human rights advocate and director of the Haitian branch of Rights and Democracy, an NGO focusing on judicial reform and women’s rights. A tall, poised woman with graying dreadlocks, Magloire represents the modern face of Haiti’s steadily growing women’s movement and opposition political intelligentsia.
“When the government built its plan, it did not include us,” adds Magloire.
“We made many declarations concerning that. They never asked us what we want to do. So how can we say we participate in this? We cannot.”
That’s not to say the women haven’t been vocal. Feminist leaders have testified before the UN, European groups, and countless visiting foreign politicians to complain about both the Haitian government and the international aid community’s failure to, in Magloire’s words, “respect” Haitian women. Foreign aid groups, she says, “should [work] with organizations that already exist, not that were created just because Haiti had an earthquake. Somehow, they don’t really respect us in Haiti.”
Instead, she feels, Haitian women are now competing with international NGOs to rent offices.
“We have so many NGOs, so many agencies, so much money. They can rent houses for fortunes.” She’s barely joking when she jibes, “I don’t know why all the NGOs who came don’t live in tents, because they are not going to stay. They take up all the good houses in Port-au-Prince. Ordinary people can’t rent a house. For me, that’s really insulting for Haitian people. It’s not helping us.”
Magloire is not alone among feminist leaders to mince no words about the failure by those in power, at home or abroad to actually help Haitians, particularly women. But like Pierre-Paul at SOFA, her group is less focused on what the big players will or won’t do, and more focused on how to begin improving things on the local level.
“The earthquake showed us the real necessity, which is to work with the community, and to decentralize,” explains Magloire. She adds that women’s groups are turning their focus to rural areas because the situation for women is growing more difficult there—an aftershock of sorts. Rapid post-quake migration of tens of thousands of traumatized urban residents to the countryside has severely taxed already limited rural resources and land.
First Steps: Surveying the Damage, Mourning the Lost
For weeks after the quake, Magloire’s office consisted of a folding chair set up in a courtyard of Rue Babiole, one of the arteries of the Babiole area of Port-au-Prince where her office building miraculously survived, but displayed some cracks.
Here, like at SOFA, the group’s first steps post-quake were concentrated on helping injured or homeless staff. Then came the focus on helping displaced camp residents. Both steps took place as they personally grieved the loss of loved ones—and the loss of their own feminist leaders.
The earthquake not only killed 220,000 Haitians and initially displaced an estimated 1.3 million; it also killed far more women than men, according to estimates made by UNIFEM, which recently stated that “several indicators allow the assumption that approximately two-thirds of those killed were women, due to their poor housing conditions.” Among them were women considered the “poto mitan”—or pillars of the Haitian women’s movement, including General Director of the Ministry of Women’s Condition and Women’s Rights Myrna Narcisse Theodore and the feminists Myriam Merlet, Anne- Marie Coriolan, Magalie Marcelin, and Mireille Anglade. The list goes on.
“It’s hard to express how much pain we carry because of how much we loved and respected these women. They were our leaders. It is not going to be possible to replace them, but we are going to try to follow in their footsteps,” said Pierre-Paul, who stepped in to fill the void left by Coriolan.
The expectations and pressures new directors face are “simply enormous,” she says, and there’s been little time to absorb a steep learning curve.
“Where do you even begin?” asked Pierre-Paul in January. But her answer is clear: “Wherever and however we can, as long as we begin somewhere. The point is to act and to follow our principles.”
Honoring the Ancestors
SOFA suffered less damage to their offices, but still had to camp outdoors to receive visitors. The overnight parade of possible donors and well-wishers has slowed, but only a bit now. Some showed up on March 8th for an International Women’s Day celebration to “Honor the Ancestors” that allowed Haiti’s women’s groups to collectively celebrate their lost leaders and the thousands of unknown women who perished on January 12th with a public monument in their honor. For some, that day provided symbolic closure, an end to the ongoing wake, and an initial emphasis on relief work. They’re refocusing on their primary mission: gender advocacy and empowerment.
Kay Fanm is one of several organizations working to help women in camps to respond to the issue of sexual violence. There, Yolette Gentil has stepped up to fill the big shoes left by Magalie Marcelin, Kay Fanm’s founder. Their office in the capital was badly damaged in the quake, and for weeks on end, Gentil sat near Magloire at the Rights and Democracy courtyard-cum-tent field office. But the crisis of rape forced her team back to their old office because many women were showing up there for emergency services. Having lost computers or cell phones, and with staff members in shock, they tried to cope.
“We were really scared to work in the building because it’s really cracked,” she admits, as she looks over at the damaged walls. “We installed everything in the conference room on the first floor. It’s temporary until we find another place.”
Such logistical challenges underscore the difficulties women’s groups face in resuming their work. But many, like Kay Fanm, have succeeded.
“Violence against women didn’t start with the earthquake, and it will not change until there is a profound change in the mentality of men about how to treat women,” states Gentil, laying out Kay Fanm’s post-quake plan of action to date.
“With the help of the Canadian embassy and UNIFEM, we were able to give first aid kits and primary need kits,” Gentil says. They’ve also continued to offer legal, medical, and psychosocial help to sexual violence survivors, and to offer shelter for adults and young children. In a setback, one of their adult shelters was destroyed. But their shelter for young girls is open and, she reports, “We are receiving girls up to 15 years old. We try to empower them and to keep them in school, and we also teach them some manual professional skills.” She adds, “I think we’ve been successful in helping, but it’s always with limited means.”
The little success, in this case, includes helping 40 young mothers under the age of 18 secure credits to start small businesses. With a half-million Haitians displaced, 40 barely registers. But to those girls and their children, it’s been a lifeline.
The Big Four
Across the women’s movement, there’s consensus on what the biggest priorities are: security and shelter, health, women’s education, and work opportunities. Survival essentials like water and food are less urgent because of international relief efforts. Yet food packets aren’t enough to feed families, and their cooking and bathing areas aren’t secure from rapists.
Kay Fanm is a member of CONAP, one of the larger leftist coalitions that include SOFA, Rights and Democracy, and groups like Fanm Deside (Women Decide) in Jacmel. These groups have a sharp political analysis of why the reconstruction plan isn’t working and why foreign aid can’t substitute for jobs or education. As leaders, their work is to put pressure on larger parties, including the government, to deliver these priority services. But to create the pressure, they also need the voices of many women. And in the wake of the earthquake, there are a lot of women who are feeling acute pressure to speak out. The demand is there. What’s needed is organizing, grassroots style, at the very local level.
That’s also what women’s groups working in the provinces like MUDHA in Leogane, or Fanm Deside in Jacmel, are successfully doing in camps where women have taken the reins.
“I can’t say we have progress because we’re still in the same position,” states Soeurette Policar of the Lig Pouvwa Fanm, a relatively new women’s rights group. “We don’t have a building for our office and we can’t pay our staff.”
Like her colleagues, Policar stepped up overnight to become interim director at her job to replace her boss, who died in the earthquake. A dynamic, youthful woman and strong feminist, Policar represents the new generation of Haitian women who are more than ready for more leadership, and who have big dreams, but haven’t yet accessed the resources to get started.
For now, her group is camped out in borrowed offices. Shortly after the quake, her group of some 60 members began doing outreach to displaced families in camps.
She feels that what’s needed most is confidence and skills-building “to help women develop the skills to speak up and to stand up and say, ‘We can do that, we can fix that, we can help.’”
As a newly minted director, she is inspired by the courage she witnessesin the women she hopes to help. “I see a lot of women trying to be involved. We still have people saying that we have to stay in the back and let men do things, but we need women to be part of all the decisions that are made. As women, we know every part of the family. If you don’t have us at the table trying to think and to see what we can do to rebuild the country, to rebuild our family, they are going to pass out of the goal.” By that she means that the big plan will fail.
As a newcomer to the field, Policar says it’s not always easy to get support from other women’s groups, especially established players. That’s true of large and foreign NGOs too: They compete for resources instead of collaborating.
The result is that Haiti’s 100-year-old women’s movement remains fractured, a loose but powerful network of groups and individual leaders with a common focus on women’s rights but often very different, and even opposing agendas. That’s one reason why as a social change movement women lack a better seat at the table of power—as a voting member of the Haitian National Reconstruction Commission, for example.
“We do need to have greater unity, while respecting our differences,” said SOFA’s Pierre-Paul in January, acknowledging the tensions that have long existed. “But the earthquake has also opened our eyes to the urgent need for better organizing. We know we have to do that.” One bright spot that has developed: new or renewed partnerships with Diaspora feminists and groups who are offering resources, training, and help.
What Lies Ahead
Looking ahead, the upcoming elections on November 28 represent a moment when a number of Haitian women will vie for both the presidency and equally critical Parliamentary and local municipal seats. Few women leaders interviewed expressed much excitement or hope that the election will spell real change for women, however they are encouraged by new female faces in the political landscape—the next generation of Haiti’s women leaders.
And they are encouraged by the support of women and women’s groups in the international community. These alliances have provided funding for schools, orphanages, women’s clinics, and trauma centers—here, the list is even longer. They include well-established NGOs like Dwa Fanm in Brooklyn, Fanm in Miami’s Little Haiti, and Canadian activists inspired by the outspoken leadership of their Governor-General, Michaelle Jean, a daughter of Haiti. In the US, a new Haiti donor’s network has formed to channel funds to grassroots Haiti women’s groups.
“Little by little we advance,” said Carole Pierre-Paul in January, and then again in April—a refrain echoed today by others. “But we are advancing.” Or, as the women leaders chanted in March, honoring their dead: Fanm yo frape fo, N a sonje, N a Vanse! “Women, hit hard, we’re aware and we’re moving forward!”
Anne-Christine d’Adesky is a long-time journalist and author with roots in Haiti. She is a regular contributor to World Pulse Magazine.
Jacob Kushner works in Haiti and the Dominican Republic and previously reported for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and La Communidad News in Madison, Wisconsin.