Haitian Women Mourn the Dead, Recommit to the Living on International Women’s Day (Part I)

All over Haiti on March 8, International Women’s Day, women’s groups met to honor their dead and raise up their living.

As for how to raise up the living, Myriam Merlet, a pioneering feminist who died in the earthquake, once said this: “This society [must] get to a different theory and application of power in all aspects. Of course, it’s a utopian dream. But the more people dream, the more likely that power can change. The more people share in the same dream, the more likely we’ll achieve it collectively.”

If you want to learn about the dream for new relations of power in Haiti, ask a Haitian woman. If you want to learn about her role in creating it, you may have to ask several times, as she is not likely to volunteer that information. She may not even be conscious of how her daily actions might be contributing to a new balance of power between individuals in society, between men and women, between civil society and the state, and between Haiti and other nations.

Take, for example, the creation of a more nurturing and humane society, where mutual support replaces money-based transactions. Since the earthquake, with international aid for those in need largely missing in action, women en masse have stepped in as first and second responders. Street vendors, factory workers, farmers, professionals and unemployed, they compose a national force that has sustained hungry, wounded and abandoned survivors. Though they may be on the razor-thin edge of survival themselves, though they may already be caring for many, women have been finding and cooking food for strangers, taking in children left orphaned and others left homeless, and seeking out medical assistance and health care or improvising their own. Some have taken it upon themselves to organize education or recreation sessions for children, who have little to do since Port-au-Prince’s schools have closed. “It’s just our social obligation,” said one woman.

Here is another example. With security in the streets and camps ranging from sparse to nonexistent, and with an inoperative justice system, women have taken the initiative in protecting each other, as well as children, from rape and other violence. Some concerned residents of camps offer round-the-clock help to girls and women at risk. They even jeopardize their own security to step in when rapes and beatings are underway. One grassroots group uses whatever money it can find to pay for bus fare so that at-risk girls in Port-au-Prince can return to their families in the countryside. Feminist organizations engage in what they call “accompaniment,” offering paths for battered and raped women to record their attack and get emotional, psychological and medical care.

Women are also core to the social movement now working to change power so that economic justice, rights and self-determination are guaranteed. Though their names may not appear on the formal declarations or their voices in the press conference, women spanning all social classes and regions are speaking up and organizing for a reconstruction that is not just about infrastructure, but also about citizen participation and social rights such as adequate food, clean water, quality health care and education. Rural women are advocating food sovereignty so that farmers – the majority of the population – can both support themselves and feed the nation while avoiding national dependence on food aid.

International Women’s Day, the annual commemoration of women begun in 1911, normally involves two components. It both celebrates women and renews their commitment to political, economic and gender justice. The celebratory tone was absent March 8 in a nation where perhaps a half-million, or roughly one in nine, is either dead or missing.

As for the other component, Haitian women used the day to build onto a long tradition of justice organizing to change the balance of power. (For that history, see part II of this article.) They spoke of critical issues they face, including (according to a survey of women’s organizations) social and economic rights, protection from rape and violence, trauma recovery and other post-earthquake psychological needs, militarization by the US, citizen participation in the rebuilding, and what a new Haiti should look like. They developed a set of demands toward the Haitian state, especially regarding its responsibilities towards survivors.

In one International Women’s Day event, a coalition of feminist groups gathered in Port-au-Prince to commemorate four pioneering feminists who died in the earthquake: Magalie Marcelin, Anne Marie Coriolan, Mireille Neptune Anglade and the aforementioned Myriam Merlet. Not far from where the women stood is a freshly bulldozed lot. Less than two months ago, on the property stood a building which bustled with the energy of women organizing. It was the Ministry on the Status and Rights of Women, created by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1994. For 16 years, the ministry headquarters stood as a symbol of what women have done and can do to change their lives and those of their compatriots. Today the empty lot stands as a symbol of Haitian women’s challenges and determination as they keep alive hope for their people, their country and new paradigms of power.