PORT-AU-PRINCE – About a year ago, during the chaos surrounding President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s departure, four men wearing nylon masks barged into the home of Ginette, not her real name. The men raped the 46-year-old and her 28-year-old daughter; stole some items; then destroyed about US$350 worth of beans, rice and other goods she sold at market to make a living.
“I got this from them,” said Ginette, lifting her skirt to show a dark brown mark on her yellow skin the size of credit card on her upper left thigh. “When they’re doing it, you don’t dare scream. If you make noise, they’ll kill you.”
“Sometimes, I stand at the wharf, just looking, looking, looking at the sea,” said Ginette, who had lived in Cité-Soleil since she came from Ouanaminthe in 1982. She lost a son there the day Operation Baghdad started in September. “One part of me says to just jump in and drown. Another part tells me not to.”
On top of the second-class treatment most women receive worldwide, those in unstable countries such as Haiti suffer worst during tumultuous periods, victims and advocates say. On World Women’s Day, Haitian women demonstrated in the streets to shed light on the problems they face and to ask for more protection of their rights.
The abusive treatment many receive is contrary to the maxim, “Women are the pillar of the society,” which women’s empowerment organizations have been trying to get across through radio and television, protests, galas and political meetings during the week. As 52 percent of the country’s 8 million people, they do more than their share and deserve more, advocates say.
In the political arena, certain groups are working to slate female candidates in this year’s elections. Among the scores of women’s rights groups, only a few address the poor, destitute women such as Ginette.
“The country’s weight, socio-economically, is on their back,” said Olga Benoit, a program coordinator at Solidarite Fanm Aysisyen in Nazon, which held a protest outside the Women’s Ministry on March 8. “The most active business in Haiti is selling – it’s them. They take care of the house. When it comes to health, they’re the ones who take care of the sick with herbs, sit with them and who go back and forth to the hospital. Midwives do the birthing.”
“All women work,” Benoit said. “But society does not recognize the value of their work.”
Some women interviewed said they knew nothing of Women’s Day or the movement to get their participation in various sectors. At the outdoors market in La Saline- where hundreds of women sell, eat and sleep on the dirt floors or narrow benches of their stalls – they said they were unaware of anything of any activities taking place.
“We don’t have radios here,” said onion vendor who goes by ‘Ti Sè’ or Suze. Leaning on a sack of onions in her stall, the size of some apartment closets in New York. “We’re in the street all the time, with nothing. We don’t listen to the news unless there is something we have to listen for. Then we go find someone with a radio.”
Barefoot, sweating, with aprons around their waists or taking a nap on a charcoal sack on the side of the road, these women’s surroundings counters that of Haiti’s leaders of the women’s movement – educated intellectuals with means.
That group meets with the Chief of the UN Mission in Haiti, Juan Gabriel Valdes, at the upscale Hotel Montana, dressed in designer suits, their coiffures styled to perfection. They are driven in air-conditioned cars, staying in touch by cellular phone. They are also the type more likely to attend high-class functions, such as the US$100 gala in Taras requiring ‘tenue de ville.’
The gala is inaccessible to struggling ‘machanns’ such as Ginette, who walks the streets asking friends for 5 gourdes to feed her children. She cannot afford fare to return to Ouanaminthe to start over, maybe by selling Dominican products available in the border town. “I’m afraid to even walk in some streets downtown,” Ginette said. “I owe so many people money for merchandise I bought on credit, I’m afraid they’ll arrest me.”
SOFA, Kay Fanm, EnfoFanm, Fanm Vanyan Matissant and a host of others work with women in rural provinces, where 68 percent of women live, according to La Femme Haitienne en Chiffres, a 1996 publication of statistics on women by Mireille Neptune Anglade. These organizations and their partners train women on how to set up and manage small businesses. They assist them with paying for their children’s education, provide counsel for female victims, act as intermediaries between poor or illiterate women dealing with government agencies and broadcast their plight on the radio programs.
The Ministry for Women’s Condition and Rights oversees the participation of women in employment, social services, and other sectors by complaining to other ministries, said Mona Jean, an attorney who represents domestic abuse victims.
On Nov. 25, 2004, the government of Haiti finally classified rape as a punishable crime, after years of advocacy – marking one of the victories in the the women’s rights movement. Public medical centers also began examining alleged rape victims free of charge and providing certificates of their findings for law enforcement purposes. Counseling sessions and commisions have also been formed to help victims cope.
Ginette began attending the weekly meetings at Fanm Vanyan Matissant in southern Port-au-Prince, hoping to get help. But spokeswoman Malya Villard said 50 to 75 women attend regular meetings, compared with 150 in 1991. The organization provided sewing and literacy classes for adults and ran a school for their children in the past. “We don’t have the means to address their issues, train and educate them,” Villard said.
Now the organizations deal primarily with violence against women, setting up a commission to raise awareness of the problem. Villard said 75 percent of its members are victims of rape, which has become a daily occurrence in the slums. Murders, looting and burning are also common.
During a live broadcast at Radio Caraibes recently, a few men standing near the door talked among themselves. One said: “If a woman says she’s going to the police for me, I’ll kill her first.” Another one said, “Women always think they suffer the worst. They just need a few slaps.” At the weekly meeting of Fanm Vanyan, Haitian Creole for Courageous Women, 48 women sat in a circle, under a tent-like structure in the backyard of a primary school, discussing their plans for World Women’s Day. Most of them participated enthusiastically; clapping and singing about victory being theirs, eventually.
Some crouched in chairs meant for small children, staring ahead listlessly. Many women have lost their homes and fled under cover from their neighborhoods to seek refuge with friends or in the streets. Ginette and Marie – not her real name- were in the latter group.
Marie, a mother of two who lived in Village de Dieu, was raped repeatedly by different men during a raid in January. Marie and others sleep at La Montagne, a mountain near Boutilliers that was popular because people prayed there. Now, Marie said, a group of them sleep on the ground with their children since they have no other place to go. “Sometimes, I think about taking a cord to hang myself, but then I think of leaving the two kids behind and I don’t do it,” said Marie, a former supplier of hair relaxers.
Elena Fevry, one of the organizers, sought to uplift their spirits in her speech. “Life put us in these circumstances,” Fevry said. “But the final victory will be for women. You can’t give up.”