SPECIAL REPORT: Haiti—Why Vote for a Woman?

3 Women Candidates Speak

BY ANNE-CHRISTINE D'ADESKY WITH JACOB KUSHNER

Josette Bijou: Independent Candidate

As a physician and specialist in maternal care, Dr. Josette Bijou is running for Haiti’s top seat with a plan to improve care for Haiti’s mothers and families. She's a mother herself, with a grown son. She’s also an ex-Minister of Health with a strong background in public administration. She’s viewed favorably in Haiti as a strong woman, though some Haitian feminists are critical of her tenure as health minister, arguing that she did not respond to their longstanding demand for a national policy requiring doctors to document and report rapes, and to provide women who say they were raped with a written certificate admissible as legal evidence in a rape case. Here Dr. Bijou explains why she’s running and what she wants for women.

What is your program for women?

Every day I work with women. I’ve worked in maternal health, which is my first primary priority. For five years at the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), I was responsible for money. I did lots of work with the women organizations. As Minister of health, I decided to transform the maternity hospital, which is the only hospital for women into a center of excellence. That maternity (hospital) is in an unfavorable area. [But] I wanted underprivileged women to have the same level of treatment as the women with money.

For me, it’s not about supporting women more than the men. It’s for both. But we need to have special consideration for women […] because we have needs that men don’t. Generally in the world, women are the most impoverished. Economically, we need to permit them to advance economically, and to be able to do that, they need education. Education is what gives them the opportunity to work—to find good work. I am administrator of the National Association of Microfinance Institutions of Haiti. The majority of the beneficiaries are women. Microfinance can make their businesses more profitable.

Why should women vote for you?

First, I am a type that will advance the affairs of the state. It would be a victory for the women of this country. A woman truly understands women’s problems. I have a long history of working with women in development and health. For all these reasons, I think I am in a good place to deserve their votes.

Both (other) female candidates are militant politicians; Madame Parent in particular. The other woman [Manigat] is a professor. I am a doctor. I am close to the women, to their specific needs, to their health, and their social position. I know the Haitian territory. I visit political leaders, I visit the areas, and I know the problems. I work within development, administration, social life, agriculture, and with community organizations. I know public administration. I was Minister of Health and I’ve worked with international organizations.

Are women participating enough in politics?

It’s not sufficient. Culturally, we’ve crossed a period of great dictatorship—speaking of the ‘father’ of politics. But many women don’t participate in politics. Women normally are in charge of taking care of the children; that’s a reason there aren’t many women in politics. There aren’t many women senators—there are three in all of the central government.

If you were president, what are steps you might take to try to promote women's participation and rights? What are the most important issues to women?

I think you hear women continually claim the problem is the political life. It’s a priority of my program is to resolve the political problem of this country. To do this, we need to stimulate the women to participate as voters. I want to create a new political class full of women, strong, and capable of running the country well. There are many women’s organizations in this country.

Women have this mindset that they are not capable of doing things that men do. I have done good work, I will do more, and I will do it better than men have done it. I think my election would stimulate women and I imagine that my victory would be symbolic [for them].

What are two actions the next president of Haiti might take to speed up Haiti's recovery from the January 12 disaster?

There’s no difference between men and women there—every person should do what they can. I’m a doctor, so I go to give medicine, to organize responses, to visit the health clinics. The women are in a very grave situation—there are a lot them that are heads of the family. There are women that take care of children themselves, without a man, with adolescents that were raped. The situation of women is even more difficult than the situation of men.

What do you offer as an independent that an endorsed candidate cannot?

We have a lot of parties that have problems. This election is a political crisis—too many parties, not enough participation. I think that as an independent, I’m capable of bringing all the parties to the table to define a new political system for our country.

Do you think a lot of women will vote in this election?

I think a good part of the population pays attention. I think they will vote.

Are you confident that these elections will bring about change?

These elections are necessary, because we need a new president. Whether these elections are going to change things depends on which candidate wins.

Turn to the next page to read an interview with front-runner Mirlande Manigat.

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Mirlande Manigat: Rassemblement des Démocrates Nationaux Progressistes, RDNP (Assembly of National Democrates)

In Haiti, they call her ‘Mami’ Manigat and ‘Pwofese’—Mama Manigat, or The Professor. At 71, Mirlande Manigat is well known to Haitians, having served a brief stint as First Lady when her husband Leslie took office briefly in January 1988 before a June coup toppled him. This August, Manigat's husband retired after 27 years as head of the Rassemblement des Démocrates Nationaux Progressistes, or RDNP, paving the way for his wife to become the front-runner in the 2010 Fall election. A respected Constitutionalist with a PhD in political science from the Sorbonne and expertise in international relations, Manigat served as Vice-Rector at Quisqueya University. She’s widely respected as a scholar and politician, even by critics who aren’t excited about the RDNP’s platform. Mme. Manigat spoke to us about why she’s running, what she hopes to do, and why she plans to defy critics who believe she’s a shadow puppet for her husband’s ambitions.

On what ideals was the RDNP party founded? What type of people support you?

We were founded in 1979. It’s a Christian Democratic party affiliated with Christian democracy in America. We believe in democracy; we believe in social justice. We believe in a type of economic development which makes synergy between the state and the private sector. We believe that capitalism as an instrument could perform really well in Haiti—provided that the state itself can have a look over all the economic and financial activities. But we believe in freedom of economic activities—private investment—not only of Haitians but also foreigners, and in international relations. We believe that we have to pay attention to the geopolitical fact that we are in the Caribbean and on the American continent, which means that we have to continue relations with the two big powers on the continent, Canada and the United States, and that we have to look to other countries.

What is the RDNP platform for women? What does RDNP offer to women that other parties don’t?

Maybe for the elections, people are supporting Mme. Manigat more than they are supporting my party—as they did for my husband.

We used to think that there is no unique female condition in Haiti—we have diverse conditions, depending on precisely the background. We believe in full equality between men and women. I can’t compare my situation to the situation of a woman who is selling food on the street. Because of the general situation of the country, my daughter will not have the same future as I had. That’s the reason why we have a sector of the party which is essentially involved in politics favoring women.

I was a sub-Secretary General, and because of my university preparation and international relations, I was appointed to look after the external relations of the party. Three years ago I was elected Secretary General when my husband pulled out.

How does your party participate with women’s organizations?

Women represent 52% of the population, but we don’t have representation in the field of politics. My party has done its utmost in order to correct that, [but] I must confess that we didn’t get many results. My husband was the first president to create the ministry of the female condition.

When election time arrives and we have to nominate candidates, we don’t find many female candidates. For instance, for the legislative elections, we have only three female candidates. We organize seminars; we give political lectures. I personally published a book on the female situation in Haiti as far as females in politics and social involvement. I personally participate in seminars with many female organizations. But in spite of all that, we don’t have the results that we need.

Why?

As Secretary General, I reproach male militancy. Men find alternative reasons to explain why women aren’t involved. Maybe the women don’t have time, maybe they aren’t interested, maybe they have to look after their children, their house, etc. But the main reason is that men are reluctant to have women come to meetings. Why don’t members of the party encourage their sisters and mothers to come with them? I’ve been working with this party for the 31 years that it exists. People got accustomed to me—my presence, my activities. But I’m not sure everyone accepted my election as Secretary General.

My husband is someone else. He enjoys such national prestige that it would never occur to someone to challenge his authority. They don’t challenge mine—apparently they accept my position as Secretary General. But there is still this kind of Haitian mentality: If I do something that they don’t agree with, they would not say, but they would think, ‘She’s a woman.’

What about women’s political participation?

Women aren’t tempted to get involved in politics. They were given the right to be candidates since 1946, but could only vote beginning in 1957. I think they use that right. But getting involved in politics means being an active member in the party, and particularly, being a candidate for an elected post. There is dissuasion coming from male family members—the father, the brother, the husband. The men believe that even though they can work with other women, they are reluctant to encourage a female to get involved. There is still a perception of politics in Haiti being something dirty, physically dangerous, and especially dangerous to the morals of a woman. It’s true, politics may be dirty, but not especially so for women. The perception is that it’s even more dirty for women.

The third reason is that it’s very difficult for a woman to organize a campaign—for many reasons. In Haiti, everybody kisses everybody, there is a kind of familiarity that’s been developed. A man in Haiti, and elsewhere, during the campaign, he can kiss everybody: men, women, children, babies, and so on. It’s natural. A woman can’t do that. Her education forbids her from being too familiar with men.

What does a woman have to do as a candidate?

If she speaks only French, that won’t do. If she speaks only Kreyol, that won’t do either. People find it quite natural that a woman speaks about babies, birth control, conditions of mothers, violence against women. But people are pretty surprised listening to women who speaks about roads, about electricity, about technology, about agriculture. Those are not specific topics relating to female conditions. But she can speak about babies.

A woman who wants to be elected, she needs money. I tell young women candidates that, in spite of my age, I don’t visit people in order to get money—I send letters. If a man gives you an appointment at 5:00 in his office, it’s not normal.

What are female voters looking for in a candidate?

The feminist movement has a slogan they have used for other elections, and they are ready to use it again: Fanm vot Fanm. Women vote for women. I can’t be against that, but I told them before, I still think that it’s a kind of radical slogan. I don’t think that people should vote for women because the candidate is a woman. I think that women should have the opportunity to assess the validity of the candidate. I am not voting for that person because she is a woman, but because I agree with her platform. It seems to me that it impedes upon the freedom of the woman voter.

What are the most important issues to them?

Any candidate who is male or female, who would like to be elected, has to propose that he or she is going to do the best in order to change the female condition. There’s sexual violence—the rape of young girls and boys. There’s also prostitution. Legally we have equality between husband and wife, but equal pay for equal work—we don’t have that. The majority of the families are matriarchal in Haiti. The situation of unmarried women with many children,who may have four children by four different men, the society doesn’t protect those women. We have a civil court in Haiti that organizes civil marriage. Only 20% of the families are married according to the civil court.

Why should women vote for you? What’s one thing you would change as president?

First, I am a woman, and being a woman is an asset for me. Second, my age. People, they see me, and they call me Mami, and they presume, and they’re right, that because of my age, I have a fair knowledge of human beings, of politics—I have experience in life. They know that I have integrity, morality, and there are things that I would never do in terms of moral behavior, like corruption. Those women who are voting for me…women of my age or even younger, they are proud of me. And for them I am an example of success, because I have the knowledge, a woman who has a PhD in political science, a woman who has worked in different countries at university level, who has published a lot of books in constitutional matters and so on. So many of them tell me that I realized a dream that they could not reach themselves. But the young ones are different; they say, ‘Ms. Manigat, you are modern.’

If you were president, what are steps you might take to try to promote women's participation and rights?

I would push for some of the laws that were introduced to the Parliament that were blocked. For instance, about the search for paternity. A person can research ‘Who was my mother? but not ‘Who was my father?’ I would establish the legality of DNA research, which doesn’t exist in Haiti legally. I would promote equality for men and women.

I would [also] banish, and I have written on this many times, the free domesticity in Haiti. The system that we call restavek. Eighty-five percent of those young people are girls. It’s a global situation… It’s not slavery, I don’t go as far as saying that. But it’s something akin to a system which deprives a category of your population and the young vulnerable ones of freedom and well-being. It’s legal; it’s recognized by the labor court. You cannot legally recognize something that is so unacceptable.

Are women excited about the upcoming election? Will they participate? I wouldn’t say they are excited. Nobody is excited in Haiti. Maybe that will change as it gets closer, but for the moment, no.

Are you confident that these elections will bring about change? I am optimist that if I get elected, things will change. I know it’s hard because I have contenders who do have something that I don’t have myself, which is money. I don’t have as much money as they have, and that will count a lot in the forthcoming elections—not only for normal expenses, publicity, but [for them] to buy votes.

Critics say you wasted their votes when, in 2006, after winning the Senate election, you resigned. Why should they vote for you again this time?

Wherever I go in the country, whenever I have to make a speech for Haitians living abroad, this question will arise. For me it’s an honor. It means that people didn’t forget; that people still remember that [victory]. First of all, it’s not my husband who forced me. That's the perception: that a woman can’t freely make such a decision, that it has to be her husband who forced her. My husband was against that. My husband told me, ‘They will not forgive you,’ and they did not forgive me.

On two occasions the electoral council blocked me in previous elections. When they gave the first report, I had 342,000 votes. When they gave the final report, I had 280-something thousand, meaning I had lost 60,000 votes. Someone who was holding a high position in the CEP warned me, telling me, ‘Ms. Manigat, you are elected on the first ballot, but they are going to block you in the second. It was a political decision.’ People say they waited for two hours, three hours to vote for me. They say ‘Ms. Manigat, We are going to vote for you, but don’t do that again.’

Turn to the next page to read an interview with former candidate Claire-Lydie Parent.

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Claire-Lydie Parent: The Mayor Kombit Party

Claire-Lydie Parent is the five-time mayor of Petionville, a charming, hilly suburb that sits above the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. She recently put in a bid to be president, but was rejected by Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council—one of 15 candidates excluded, including Haitian-American musician Wyclef Jean. Parent protested that decision, but is no longer officially in the running. Married, and with two children, she heads the Konbit party, which was founded four years ago. For now, her main pulpit remains City Hall, where she plays a prominent role in daily civic and political affairs. Here, Parent explains why she seeks higher office and what her party offers to women.

What is the Konbit platform for women?

On a political level, women are in a very important place in the economy of the country, but they are forgotten by the major parties. At Konbit, we motivate women to become candidates and participate in all elections, not just for president, but for mayors and deputies too.

Our program for women is that the majority of Haitians are in the agriculture culture. There are many women in the country that are involved in commerce, on the streets, but to really aid the government, they need to cultivate the earth too. Right now, the women that work the earth don’t have money to cultivate. We want to modernize agriculture. We want to have new material and equipment. We want to assist women by creating an agricultural bank, where they can buy credit to produce agriculture.

Tourism should also be developed, and the women should work within that—in the hotels, in the restaurants. We would like them to be managers, to learn to be chefs, and receptionists, and secretaries. We need technical schools.

Another thing is their health. We want to teach women how to protect themselves from diseases, how to clean the water, to raise the children far from those diseases we can catch from water, from sex, from all of that. We want women to be informed. This would also apply to women in prison. We want to assist them judicially, give them lawyers.

What are female voters looking for?

I think they want a change, but they don’t want just a change in gender; they want a woman who can prove herself. Someone who can make change. That’s why most of them want me to be president. That’s why they elected me five times already as mayor of Petionvlle.

What does KONBIT offer to women that other parties don’t?

What we offer that other parties don’t is that my presence as mayor proves that women can occupy an important place within the country. For example, we are the only municipality (Petionville) that has a program for women in prison. We have a program of financial assistance for street vendors. We have two trade/professional schools for women. In school we prioritize that girls can go to university. [At Konbit] we have many other programs that interest women.

What are the most important issues to women?

Education. Academic development. That the involvement of women in the development of the country is important. It’s about empowerment. [And] women should understand the Haitian laws.

Are women excited about the upcoming election? Will they participate?

They are not happy for many reasons: because most of them are victims from the earthquake, they are still on the streets, the economy is slowed down.... They are in trouble. They are not happy with the way they see the government and the CEP running the election. They are not happy because they see every time we have elections in Haiti, we have to beg for money to campaign. Too much money is spent on elections—they don’t like that. They are not happy because they feel the way that these elections are coming—they smell fraud, corruption..

Why do you think you were rejected by the CEP?

They don’t have a real reason, because a real reason should be based on something legal. In each term, you’re supposed to have discharge (a legal certificate confirming an annual audit of spending by government officials), but it is done at the end of each term. My term is four years. It’s not the first time I entered a race when I was still in power. Every year I spend money; they count and control it. To get the certificate, you’re supposed to go to the court to verify this. I gave that paper, which was the same one that [other candidates] gave.

What are you telling your supporters about who they should vote for?

I would never tell them not to vote. But we should be there to denounce what they are doing wrong with these elections. They should stay there to fight with them [the CEP]. Life in Haiti is a fight—we must fight for everything.