Sunday, October 10, 2010


(Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti) - By Wadner Pierre, IPS

GONAIVES - “I’m going to do every­thing pos­si­ble to raise my daugh­ter. My daugh­ter is my future. And I can see my future in her,” says Mir­lene Saint Juste, a rice mer­chant in the Opoto mar­ket of Gonaives in north­ern Haiti.

Hait­ian women like Saint Juste who work as street ven­dors are widely viewed as one of the country’s main eco­nomic engines. Their loud sales pitch on busy mar­ket days has earned them the affec­tion­ate nick­name “Madame Sara”, after a type of yel­low bird in the coun­try­side that loves to sing.

Cetoute Sadila, now middle-aged, has worked since she was 15 at the Lester mar­ket in the val­ley of Art­i­bonite, Haiti’s largest department.

“I have been sell­ing rice here since I was lit­tle girl,” she says. “I used to sell a medium-sized can of rice for 30 gour­des (74 cents). Now, I have to sell it for 105 gour­des (about 2.60 U.S. dol­lars) because the fer­tiliser is very expen­sive.” Still, Sadila said she is able to send her chil­dren to school and university.

Not all are so lucky. While Art­i­bonite, and its cap­i­tal, Gonaives, were largely spared by the dev­as­tat­ing Jan. 12 earth­quake, Port-au-Prince and its sur­rounds suf­fered colos­sal damage.

The slow pace of recov­ery has pushed women who were already on the brink of des­ti­tu­tion over the edge.

Rosemene Mon­de­sir is a sin­gle mother of seven chil­dren who has lived in a dis­placed per­sons camp for the last eight months. “I have always been the mother and father of my chil­dren — before and after the earth­quake,” she says. “I need assis­tance to feed and send them to school.”

The filthy, ram­shackle camp is sit­u­ated about a 40-minute drive north of Port-au-Prince. Res­i­dents have dubbed it “the desert of Canaan” because there are so few trees and no potable water. The area used to be a dump­site for the vic­tims of death squads, par­tic­u­larly fol­low­ing the first coup against for­mer Pres­i­dent Jean-Bertrand Aris­tide in 1991.

But in Haiti, women are always well-organised, whether in the mar­ket­place or the camps. As the dust from the quake set­tled, they have joined hands to com­bat rapists and oppor­tunis­tic thieves.

Stephanie Henry, a 28-year-old civil engi­neer, is the leader of Ann Kore Yo/Let’s Sup­port Them, a grass­roots women’s group based in Cer­sal camp in the Del­mas dis­trict. “A group of women and I decided to found this organ­i­sa­tion to help other young women,” she told IPS. “The young are more vulnerable.”

“Some of them lost their par­ents in the earth­quake. They have to sell their bod­ies to get some money to live. It is very sad,” Henry says.

Teen preg­nancy is also much more vis­i­ble than before the earth­quake. Dr. Mag­a­lita Lajoie, a gen­eral prac­ti­tioner who spe­cialises in com­mu­nity health, told IPS, “I was work­ing in a camp where I reg­is­tered six cases of 13-year-old girls who became preg­nant after Jan. 12.”

“Rape is a big prob­lem in the camps,” she said. “We have train­ings for 14-year-old girls liv­ing in the camps we work at. We teach them what to do in case some­one rapes them. We also teach them how to pro­tect them­selves from get­ting preg­nant. In turn, they teach the other girls.”

Those who work with women in the camps say that the author­i­ties are often indif­fer­ent to crimes against women and rapists are rarely brought to justice.

“The Hait­ian gov­ern­ment and MINUSTAH [the U.N. peace­keep­ing force] have to take respon­si­bil­ity to pro­vide secu­rity for the camps. They have to pro­tect the women and chil­dren from being abused or raped by the preda­tors,” said Mario Joseph, a lead attor­ney with the Bureaux des Avo­cats Inter­na­tionaux (BAI), at a press con­fer­ence last month with Blaine Bookey, a U.S. lawyer work­ing with the Insti­tute for Jus­tice and Democ­racy in Haiti (IJDH).

A report pub­lished in July by human rights groups includ­ing Madre, IJDH and BAI called “Our Bod­ies Are Still Trem­bling: Hait­ian Women’s Fight against Rape” detailed ongo­ing sex­ual vio­lence in the camps and crit­i­cised the Hait­ian pres­i­dent and U.N. mis­sion in Haiti for not pro­vid­ing secu­rity or electricity.

Komisyon Fanm Vik­tim Pou Vik­tim, or KOFAVIV/Committee of Women Vic­tims for Vic­tims, has worked with sur­vivors of sex­ual vio­lence since 2004. In a report pub­lished Jul. 18, KOFAVIV con­tra­dicted U.N. claims that secu­rity has been pro­vided in prob­lem areas. “Peo­ple liv­ing in many camps are forced to pro­vide their own secu­rity, with lit­tle resources, through infor­mal secu­rity patrols or ‘brigades’,” the group said.

In the first two months after the earth­quake, KOFAVIV tracked 230 inci­dents of rape in just 15 camps in Port‐au‐ Prince.

While the gov­ern­ment and the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity work on a recon­struc­tion plan, many feel that the imme­di­ate prob­lems fac­ing Hait­ian women have slipped under the radar – even though they must play a key role in putting Haiti back on its feet.

Besides per­sonal safety issues, there are no child sup­port laws to pro­tect sin­gle moth­ers, who com­prise the major­ity of home­less seen on the street.

Marie Ben­jami, a mother of three, is among the more for­tu­nate ones. She has a job at the Zanmi Agrikol farm, a project of Zanmi Lasante/Partners in Health, located in Bas– Plateau Central.

“I have been work­ing with Zanmi Agrikol/Friends of Agri­cul­ture for two years. I can only help my chil­dren by com­ing here. If I didn’t work here, I don’t know what I would do to sup­port them,” she said.

This Nov. 28, Haitians will head to the polls to choose a new pres­i­dent, 10 sen­a­tors and 99 mem­bers of par­lia­ment. Fanmi Lavalas, widely seen as the most pop­u­lar polit­i­cal party in the coun­try, has again been excluded from the elec­tion on tech­ni­cal grounds.

But women may still have some­thing to cheer about. Despite their many hard­ships and a cul­ture of dis­crim­i­na­tion, at least two — Mir­land H. Mani­gat and Claire-Lydie Par­ent – have reg­is­tered to run for president.

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