Dispatches from Haitian Women’s Organizing & Survival

[tweetmeme source= ‘yourtwittername’ only_single=false]In an article entitled “One Year and One Day,” Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat reflects on the first anniversary of the devastating January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti,

By this interpretation of death, one of many in Haiti, more than two hundred thousand souls went anba dlo—under the water—after the earthquake last January 12th. Their bodies, however, were elsewhere. Many were never removed from the rubble of their homes, schools, offices, churches, or beauty parlors. Many were picked up by earthmovers on roadsides and dumped into mass graves. Many were burned, like kindling, in bonfires, for fear that they might infect the living.

“In Haiti, people never really die,” my grandmothers said when I was a child, which seemed strange, because in Haiti people were always dying. They died in disasters both natural and man-made. They died from political violence. They died of infections that would have been easily treated elsewhere. They even died of chagrin, of broken hearts. But what I didn’t fully understand was that in Haiti people’s spirits never really die. This has been proved true in the stories we have seen and read during the past year, of boundless suffering endured with grace and dignity: mothers have spent nights standing knee-deep in mud, cradling their babies in their arms, while rain pounded the tarpaulin above their heads; amputees have learned to walk, and even dance, on their new prostheses within hours of getting them; rape victims have created organizations to protect other rape victims; people have tried, in any way they could, to reclaim a shadow of their past lives.

Below are articles from the past year about Haitian women’s organizing for safety and justice after the earthquake:

Rape in the Camps: Lacking Security, Women Organize to Protect Themselves, Amy Goodman interviews Malia Villard Appolon, coordinator of KOFAVIV, Democracy Now

That’s a camp which has a lot of difficulties in it. The government doesn’t take any measures to provide security there. That’s why we saw a lot of problems of security there, because there’s no police presence. It’s us, as civilians in the camp, who took the initiative to put in place a committee of protection to protect the women against the sexual violence they were under, experiencing.

Haiti Women Regroup, Rebuild, by Rebecca Harshbarger, Women’s E-News

A loose-knit coalition of 106 organizations called Femmes Citoyennes Haiti Solidaire, or Women Citizens Haiti United, has emerged from the devastation of the January earthquake to lobby for women’s advancement during the recovery efforts.Part of their inspiration comes from wanting to carry on for three leaders lost in the disaster [Magalie Marcelin opened Haiti’s first shelter for battered women; Myriam Merlet, chief of staff for Haiti’s Ministry for Gender and the Rights of Women, and Anne Marie Coriolan, who worked in the courts to criminalize rape]…

Souerette Policar Montjoie is president of Lig Pouva Fanm, a women’s leadership organization in Port-au-Prince that joined the coalition.

“We have a lot of things to say and Haitian women are very strong,” she told Women’s eNews in a phone interview. “But in Haiti, the position of men is higher than women. We want men to know that we can put our hands together. They don’t have to fight us.”

Women Citizens Haiti United members range from a collective of female university students to a network of women working in rural community organizations. Members represent an array of special projects: curbing domestic and sexual violence, as well as improving women’s access to credit, job training and education.

Haitian Women: Pillars of the Economy & Resistance, by Masum Momaya, AWID

Historically, many women were employed in Haiti’s factories or worked as farmers. Yet recent shifts have caused women to take up work in the already crowded informal sector. Many are self-employed – owning home-based stores selling small wares and clothing, cooking food to sell on the streets or working as domestic servants. Some also work in the sex industry. [1]

The small percentage of women who still work in garment factories face exploitative working conditions, but they have been mobilizing for labor rights and national policy reform to keep factories open while paying living wages and ensuring fair working conditions.

Additionally, Haitian women and their allies both inside and outside Haiti have been fighting for debt cancellation. In June 2009, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Inter-American Development Bank cancelled a significant portion – $1.2 billion – of Haiti’s debt. Other creditors, including the Canadian government, have followed suit. Now, campaigns are focused on boosting national industry and production.

Meanwhile, NGOs such as Dwa Famn, Fonkoze, the Lambi Fund and Partners in Health support women with counseling, basic education, skills-training, loans and health care, including women who have survived domestic or other forms of violence. These and other civil-society organizations employ a community-based approach and support women’s leadership development, such that women determine their own needs and gain skills to lead efforts for change.

Additionally, women continue to share and raise awareness about Haiti’s history and contemporary life locally and transnationally as artists, musicians and writers. Many draw and paint scenes of current-day joys and sorrows while others invoke words and songs dating back to slave rebellions. These expressions serve as reminders of the strength of ancestors and past struggles as well as the power of art in communicating across borders. [2]

Haitian feminist journalist Mirlene Joanis, who is interviewed in the Poto Mitan film, writes “When you see how Haitians are slaving away in the streets, it reminds you of an epoch a long time ago when our ancestors were slaves. In those days, it was only human force that made the country rich.” Today, such a tradition continues, in which women make the country ‘rich’ – not only through their economic contributions but also through their continuation of the resistance and push for reform that has characterized Haiti since its founding.

Women’s movement building and creating community in Haiti, Sokari Ekine, blacklooks.org

One of the stories least reported has been the one about Haitians organising for themselves, particularly stories presented within a framework of feminist organising and movement building.   This is one woman’s story of how she, her family and the people in the various communities in which she works, came together collectively to care for each other’s needs and how that struggle has become the foundation of a new movement  of the poor for  change in education and the material lives of women and men – a struggle for dignity.   Their personal and collective humanitarian response was completely off the radar of NGOs, international institutions and the Haitian government.  Even Save The Children, whose office is located right next to the school did nothing to help SOPUDEP.      However ultimately this was an aside for Rea.   What was important was that those who needed help of whatever kind, received it and beyond that the struggle for dignity and self-determination for the poor people of Haiti.

Post-Earthquake: “Hearing Our Mothers: Safeguarding Haitian Women’s Self-Representation & Practices of Survival,” Dr. Myriam J. A. Chancy

If you know of other news reports, video/audio, blog entries, or first hand accounts about women’s, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans community organizing in Haiti, please put the link in comments.

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