02.12.10

Haiti's Women Rise From the Rubble

The quake claimed the lives of Haiti’s best-known feminist activists. How the rebuilding efforts should advance gender equality—and honor their memories.

On March 7, 2004, Haitian women’s rights advocate Myriam Merlet penned a letter to sister advocates in the Caribbean. “Tomorrow is International Women's Day, and right now, with the sound of gunshots in the background… and dozens of national and international gunshot victims in the hospital and in the morgue, we are continuing to organize and focusing our efforts on building a country where our rights will be respected and our voices heard.”

Tragically for the Haitian women’s movement, Merlet was among several celebrated activists who were lost in the Jan. 12 earthquake, including Magalie Marcelin, a jurist known for her pivotal role in fighting violence against women, and Anne Marie Coriolan, a linguist, economist, and fierce advocate for Haiti’s women, youth, and peasants. Although they came from diverse professional backgrounds, the trio was united in a single cause: to make women equals in Haitian society.

Because of these women, rape is now a punishable crime in Haiti. Domestic violence is increasingly denounced. Battered women now have some safe houses to turn to for help.

Because of these women, rape is now a punishable crime in Haiti, rather than a weapon used by the powerful to subdue activists. Domestic violence is increasingly denounced. Battered women now have some safe houses to turn to for help. Haitian women’s contribution to the country’s socioeconomic advancement—as 43 percent of household heads and 84 percent of the country’s self-employed workforce—is increasingly incorporated into the country’s poverty reduction and development strategies. To keep the momentum going, women must be recognized as leaders in the country’s reconstruction efforts, which hinge, in part, on continued efforts to fight gender inequality.

To begin with, Haitian women should be included in the efforts recently undertaken, post-disaster, to assess the country’s needs. As schools reopen, women can seek a commitment to girls' education, and as clinics are rebuilt, they can fight for reproductive health care. Before the quake, girls accounted for just over 40 percent of Haiti’s secondary-school population. Health-care needs are even more dire. Eighty percent of Haitian women are forced to give birth in precarious conditions without qualified medical assistance, due to limited access to heath centers and high costs.

As the Haitian National Police is reconstituted, women’s advocates can ask for more women to wear the uniform, and for police training on issues such as domestic violence. When reconstruction contracts are handed out, advocates should demand that some be reserved for female-owned enterprises, and that women in rural areas are part of development and micro-enterprise initiatives.

The three deceased feminist leaders helped pave the way for this kind of activism. Magalie’s favorite expression was bel moun, a Creole saying she coined meaning “people who support the good of Haiti.” It was the perfect description for the kind of society of Haitian women these women were fighting for. Anne Marie could always foresee the next mile of the struggle and discern ways to get there. Myriam was as tough as she was tender, as patriotic as she was progressive.

In 1994, alongside many other women, they helped establish a Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Rights, where each of them subsequently served. Anne-Marie was chief of staff in 1995. Myriam later served in the same capacity. Magalie worked hand-in-hand with the ministry to draft, revise, and lobby for the passage of a 2009 law on domestic household workers, ensuring that over 200,000 women and girls would be granted worker status under Haitian law. They also worked on a paternity bill—still on the legislative agenda—to ensure the recognition and support of children born out of wedlock. Their colleagues say they will remember Anne Marie for her sense of organization, Magalie for her fearlessness, and Myriam for her tenacity.

All three women, each founders of a prominent women’s rights organization in the country—SOFA (the Haitian Women’s Solidarity Movement), Kay Fanm, and Enfofam—worked tirelessly to create the National Coordination for Advocacy on Women’s Rights, a platform for feminist organizations throughout the country. Its aim was to advance women’s rights and improve the socio-economic condition of women in Haiti.

Through their hard work and that of other women leaders, when the earthquake struck on January 12, 7 percent of Haiti’s National Police force were women, four women were serving as government ministers, six held seats in parliament, and even more were slated to appear on the ballot for the now postponed Feb. 28 parliamentary elections.

The women that Myriam, Magalie, and Anne-Marie empowered must build on their legacy to ensure Haiti’s recovery and reconstruction includes female voices. Only then can the new Haiti—the one that emerges from this crisis—become a country true to these fallen leaders’ legacies.

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Bernice Robertson is a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. She is based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.