World Pulse

SPECIAL REPORT: Haiti, Women, and the Elections: Following Africa's Lead

Corine Milano
Posted October 15, 2010 from United States


In January, World Pulse teamed up with longtime journalist and regular contributor Anne-christine d’Adesky to spotlight the response of Haiti’s women to the earthquake. We’ve also been happy to provide a digital home on PulseWire for PotoFanm+Fi, a Haiti advocacy group that formed post-quake to support women and girls in Haiti.Today, we’re featuring a Special Report on Women, Haiti, and the Elections—a package of articles, poems, and photographs that capture what women leaders are doing and how they envision change. This is the first installment in the series.


On September 25, a series of urgent SMS text messages from Haiti sent many racing to their computers and radios again, fearing the worst. Like the historic 30-second earthquake that leveled much of Haiti on January 12, a freak storm had slipped over the mountains, creating fresh calamity. Amwe! Help! ran the tweets and texts. Nouvo krase! We’re crushed again.

This time, the falling structures were not 18th-century gingerbread houses, but UN tents and loose tarps erected amid and on top of quake rubble and on arid plains that still house over a million still-displaced quake survivors. Many are women and children.

Many of the women we work with in the camps are injured and homeless, again!!! a Partners in Health colleague texted. The TB tent at the general hospital was blown away and the 70 patients, some on oxygen, were standing in the rain crying... seems WHO was able to send another tent, but in another camp, the medical clinic tent also went down and has not yet been replaced.

The SOS texts arrived just as Haitian and world leaders mingled with Hollywood celebrities at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) meeting in New York to discuss Haiti’s progress and its upcoming elections. One hot topic: What are the chances a woman may take office now, reversing Haiti’s long history of male presidents? Mirlande Manigat, an ex-First Lady and professor, is currently leading a crowded field of now 19 hopefuls that also include Josette Bijou, a physician and ex-Minister of Health. Another 15 were rejected by Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), including global hip hop star Wyclef Jean, a Haitian-American with primary residency in New Jersey, and Claire-Lydie Parent, the mayor of Petionville, a suburb of the destroyed capital, Port-au-Prince.

Globally, the presence of two women has excited Haiti watchers, yet in Haiti itself, the exclusion of candidates, some on technicalities, has raised fresh criticism of the CEP, and charges that Haiti’s current president, Réne Préval, is calling the shots. At press time, many opposition parties planned to boycott or sit out the elections, including women’s groups to the left of the political spectrum.

Elections or Selections?

“In Haiti we say these elections are a selection,” says Yolette Gentil, director of Kay Fanm, an NGO helping women who are raped find safer shelter. “It’s not possible to have an election right now. All the registration lists were destroyed. We aren’t able to know who is dead and who is alive. This is something that makes the election not serious.” She adds, “There is no transparency.”

In February, a destroyed Haiti postponed its planned elections, which allowed Préval to stay on. But for how long? Many inside and outside of Haiti pushed Préval to set a fall date for new elections – their barometer of democracy. But as Gentil points out, the current post-quake conditions in Haiti make citizen participation very difficult at best for candidates and voters. “This is just a pretext to force us to have elections right now under the wrong conditions,” Gentil adds.

Such factors reflect what Haitians call mauvaises politiques in French—bad politics, or corruption. Haiti’s CEP is widely seen as corrupt and came under early fire for excluding Fanmi Lavalas, the most popular Haitian party. Lavalas elected populist President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 before he was overthrown, later restored to power, and then exiled to South Africa, paving the way for Préval to ascend. If Haiti had an election today, many believe Lavalas would win in a heartbeat. Instead, the teledjol, or rumor mill, is convinced that fraud will take place as it did in past elections, including questionable quarantining of ballots in 2006—Haiti’s version of the ‘hanging chad.’ Or, equally likely, very few Haitians will participate, but a winner will still be declared.

“Candidates from the three main political parties—Lespwa (Hope), Inite (Unity), and Lavalas – they are the same candidates for 30 years,” complained Gentil. “They are the same people in power, changing places. They are the ones who have put the country in this situation. They’re not going to be able to do anything after the earthquake.”

Such complaints have found a receptive audience. On October 8, 45 US Democratic lawmakers wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “to withhold funds for elections in Haiti next month if they are not going to be free, fair, and inclusive." [paging]

Gender Fault Lines

Whoever inherits the presidency faces the monumental challenge of rebuilding a country that remains in total catastrophe—and one that has become much more dangerous now for many women and girls. Haiti’s earthquake is impacting them along preexisting social fault lines of gender, inequity, and acute poverty—a common feature of disasters. New UN figures suggest two-thirds of the 220,000 killed were female, many being among the poorest, with rickety houses on hillsides that slid into ravines. Not surprisingly, many of the injured are now disabled women and girls who lost their limbs. A majority of newly homeless are women widows, single heads of household and orphaned girls caring for siblings. They live in squalid, badly overcrowded, overnight tent cities where armed men prey on women and girls at night, after daytime UN peacekeeper and police patrols vanish. The efforts by camp residents and women’s groups to increase protection has raised awareness, but guns rule.

“The sexual violence in the camps is another aftershock,” agrees Marie St. Cyr, a member of the Lambi Fund, a Haitian group helping women in camps and rural areas. “Women are terrified.” With elections nearing, women fear new violence—a pattern seen in previous elections. “Usually in Haiti during an election period, the insecurities become higher than usual,” says Soeurette Policar, Director of Lig Pouvwa Fann—the Women’s Rights League

“We need the government to put women in the center of their action plan or we fear it’s just going to get worse,” says St. Cyr, putting her finger on the women’s agenda.

Yet, as she acknowledges, sexual violence, homelessness and insecurity are hardly new to Haitian women. World Bank figures found that 70% reported suffering domestic or public violence – a figure that had increased, pre-quake. There were terrible rapes during the 2006 presidential elections, and rapes of Haitian women by Sierra Leone peacekeepers, reflecting women aren’t confident about the foreign men wearing blue helmets, either.

What Women Want

In interviews with women leaders and ordinary women in Haiti, protection from rape is continually mentioned as an urgent step for Haiti’s next president. But it reflects the deeper challenge: changing patriarchal attitudes, laws, and cultural traditions that enforce social inequity and tolerance of violence against women.

“After the earthquake, because the new priorities are food and shelter, there is a tendency to forget the legal equality priorities between men and women,” explains Dilia Lemaire, Director of Judicial Affairs at MOUFED, a women’s rights NGO in the Haitian capital. “The urgent situation is that the prejudice against women should not be forgotten.”

Today, Haitian women make up more than half the population—52% —and they are 57% of its agricultural workforce—an economic backbone. In urban cities, women dominate in the informal markets, working as ti marchann, or street vendors. They make less than half of men’s wages, on average. One factor: 60% of adult women are illiterate—a shocking statistic in a country an hour’s flight from modern Miami. In areas like property rights and land, laws also favor men, and husbands. That’s one reason why women earthquake widows may now be permanently homeless: not only did the family home or office collapse, but they may have lost their right to this property if it was in their husband’s name. Haiti’s administrative ministry collapsed, burying the country’s archives, adding to the mess of sorting through land and other titles. Some were in placage, or common-law marriages—a norm in rural Haiti, since it costs money to get legally married by a judge. Haitian property law recognizes officially married couples. Without a marriage certificate, a title to the land, a replaced ID card so they can vote, it’s harder to move forward—to secure a bank loan, credit for a small business, equipment or seeds—all the important rebuilding blocks.

That’s why candidate ‘Mami Manigat’, as many Haitians call her, says establishing paternity is a priority for her party. Feminists also hope to put real teeth into Haiti’s law against rape—itself a recent victory for the women’s movement—by prosecuting rape cases.

Still, they aren’t expecting that to happen easily, even with a woman at the helm.

Currying the Women’s Vote

In August and September, World Pulse interviewed over a dozen women leaders of key grassroots organizations. The more leftist plan to join the election boycott or help blockade the elections. Others are sitting it out. Still others plan to participate, but are focusing on Congressional races. For some, violence remains a big deterrent, including fear of drive-by shootings of voters in line that marred past elections. Travel is a huge impediment, since citizens are still required to vote where they first registered and so many are now displaced far from home. Money is a major hurdle: It’s very costly to run a campaign. Candidates do receive a bit of money from the CEP, but not much, they say. “We had a member of her group who was very excited about running,” said Policar. “She said, ‘This is not an election; this is a selection process, so I’m not going to run.’” [paging]

What about Mme. Manigat? Won’t women vote for a woman—even one from the elite? Manigat, a university professor and ex-First Lady, is well known, politically seasoned, and an intellectual. “The most popular will be Mme. Manigat,” agrees Policar, who nevertheless plans to back Dr. Bijou. “But I won’t vote for her because I remember in 2006 when her husband asked her not to run… and she accepted that.” She’s referring to Mme. Manigat’s decision to decline a Senate seat she won after her husband Leslie lost his presidential bid the same year. He led the Rassemblement des Démocrates Nationaux, or RDNP party (Assembly of Progressive National Democrats) for 27 years before making room for his wife to run in August. Not everyone is convinced he’s actually retired. “I think maybe if she becomes president her husband will control her,” adds Policar, voicing her doubts about a possible political twofera—Hil-n-Bill Clinton-type presidency.

Others view the prospect of a woman as an automatic plus. “It would be great to have a woman as president because many years before, women were trying to have a leader, a person women could count on to change the face of our country,” says Cashnar Polycarpe Desir, a journalist with Refraka, a women’s community radio network. “That would be a great step because women would have the right to have health, education, to have protection, and to decide for the country.” Marjorie Jolicoeur of the Platforme des Femmes Citoyennes puts it more bluntly: “You’d better vote for a woman if you want change now. Haiti has had 15 years with men as presidents.”

Learning from Liberia

The Platforme formed post-quake with the express purpose of promoting women’s leadership. That’s also the mission of Fanm Yo La, and Femmes en Dèmocratie, the Haitian branch of Vital Voices. These groups are focused on seeding change from the bottom, up – at the local level. Their targets are municipal races and Haiti’s Parliament.

Some point to Liberia and Rwanda— two post-disaster societies where many women took office—as models for Haiti.

“There are reports from the World Bank that women are less corruptible,” says Danielle St. Lot, a former Minister of Commerce who is leading the charge at Femmes en Démocratie. “They also have to prove their capacity. It’s not like a gift for them when they are elected -- they fight for it. So when they are in power, they deliver.” Her group believes that putting more women into power at the local level and Congress could yield for Haiti what’s occurred in parts of Africa: increasing investments in children's health, education, social justice, and economic stability.

Pre-quake, Haiti had more than 70 different parties sitting in parliament, but women made up less than 13% of Haiti’s senate and 4% of lower chamber. At press time, 45 women were campaigning for the 99 seats in the Congress, out of 816 total candidates (5%), and eight women were eying the 30 Senate seats, out of a total of 95 candidates (8%). Many are leaders of women’s organizations that Femmes en Démocratie has been working with for years. “Some are former candidates that ran in 2006,” explains St. Lot. “We’re going to support them in terms of technical assistance, coaching in communications, and electoral message development.”

Given the current lineup, there’s a good chance that St. Lot will be encouraged on November 28— at least for the future.

“We think that if we have 20 qualified women—women respected in their community with a vision for their country—it can really make a difference, especially in this reconstruction,” she adds.

“The president needs to be a woman who has a feminist heart, someone who has the ability to defend women,” agrees Yolette Mengual of the Platforme, who’s ready for a Haitian Ellen Sirleaf Johnson—or many. “We need more women in Congress. We are ready for the women to lead us forward.” [paging]

The Way Forward: Learning from Disaster“We need education in our country, but that has to include civic education, says Soeurette Policar of Lig Pouvwa Fanm, reviewing the road ahead for Haitian women. “It’s not enough to have schools everywhere for children; you need to educate people about how to live with someone, how to protect the environment, how to communicate with others. We need that type of education in Haiti.” For leaders like her, adult and rural education tops the to-do list for adult women and those in rural areas. They are looking at the lessons from post-conflict countries like Liberia and Rwanda who are integrating peacemaking and sexual violence into school-based education and targeting men and boys for social reeducation, too. In war-ravaged Liberia, President Sirleaf Johnson’s first bold steps included focusing on sexual violence, adult education, and on small-scale women entrepreneurs as critical targets of post-disaster recovery. Her government established women-led informal markets and a Liberia Market Women’s Fund, backed by high-powered African and American women, to help women get what Haitians call ti kredi—a little credit. Sharing her success and lessons at the Clinton power-fest, Johnson touched on steps Haiti could take. They include organizing women into effective trade organizations, and helping women farmers have a greater voice and vote in agrarian kombits—rural work cooperatives. Other economic steps that could help: savings accounts geared toward girls and programs of financial literacy such as those being done by Banco ADOPE, a microfinance institution in the neighboring Dominican Republic. Another is to allocate business profits to deal with short-term emergencies, this one cited by co-authors Isabel Coleman and Mary Ellen Iskenderian, in an article about "Putting Women at the Center of Building Back Better in Haiti,” that was published in the journal Innovations for the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York. It highlights highlight case studies and strategies to rebuild Haiti. Others urge the government and private groups to recruit and train more women for arriving reconstruction jobs. Women held 40% of the post-quake Cash for Work jobs in Haiti—a promising figure. What about paying women in camps to do childcare and work as teachers, to be trained as lay midwives, trauma, and rape counselors? What about helping more women learn to retrofit their houses and secure non-traditional jobs, working in recycling and renewable energy—a goal of groups like Architects for Humanity, Build Change, and others now in Haiti? If Mme. Manigat wins in November and helps push through a reform of paternity laws with more women in Congress, this could help pave the way for joint land titling (registering property in both a husband and wife’s name)—a critical step on the women’s agenda now. This was a successful post-tsunami step that World Vision helped implement in Aceh, Indonesia. If Haiti reformed its inheritance laws (like Rwanda, Liberia, and recently, Kenya), daughters would inherit equally as their brothers. That could help many orphaned girls now. Such stepping-stones offer real bricks for women and girls to rebuild not only their own lives, but Haitian society. On the security front, Liberia offers another model. UN reports showing that after an influx of female peacekeepers, only 18 peacekeepers were accused of sexual abuse in Liberia. That’s one reason UN MINUSTAH officials brought in a 160-member Bangladeshi women peacekeeping unit to beef up security in Haiti’s camps. But since neither they nor Brazilian MINUSTAH forces speak Creole, there’s been a limited opportunity for sharing lessons with Haitian women leaders or those managing tent cities. Training Haitian women and men to protect their own citizens might yield better results. More women have been recruited into Haiti’s police force post-quake – a positive step. Another big one would be to push Haiti’s next president—man or woman—to mobilize Haitian men and male leaders to become engaged leaders in a national fight against rape. Who better than a global superstar rapper and youth leader like Wyclef Jean, revered by Haitian teenage boys? He’d find good company in global leaders like Stephen Lewis, who helped spearhead creation of UN Women, after witnessing close up a decade of war-rape in Africa. Or Ashton and Demi, who launched their ‘Real Men Don’t Buy Women’ campaign against sexual slavery at the Clinton meeting. Or celebrities like Sean Penn, who’s taken over running of a major camp in Haiti. Most important are the many Haitian fathers and male relatives who are heartsick about failing to protect their female loved ones from rape by armed gang members. On the health front, the opportunities to hire and train ordinary women are plentiful, including as midwives, peer counselors, health educators, and health professionals. With 40% of women of childbearing age lacking contraception in Haiti, the highest fertility rate in the region (4.7 children per women on average) and rising cases of forced pregnancies from rape, the demand is there. That includes hiring young women to be youth educators and help run teen girl support groups. All are examples of what Haiti needs and could do now.

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