“We need to lighten the burdens on the backs of Haitian women.. On international Women’s Day, Haitian women commemorate the battle that we are still fighting to have our rights recognized and to play a full equal role in Haitian society. ” – Marie Frantz Joachim, Solidarite Fanm Ayisyen.
Marie Frantz Joachim is the coordinator of Solidarite Fanm Ayisyen (or Haitian Women’s Solidarity, known by the acronym SOFA), one Haiti’s leading women’s organizations. She has also been designated by the women’s sector to be their representative in the Provisional Electoral Council, which will soon be installed in Haiti. With passion and conviction she spoke about the importance of the electoral process and constraints being faced by Haiti’s poorest women and at a Capitol Hill briefing in Washington DC last week.
It is now well past cliché that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. What is perhaps less well known is what the impact of this infamous status is on women and girls.
One third of the Haitian population is currently food insecure and dependent on food aid. The combined effects of climate change and El Nino have caused a devastating three year drought. In 2015 alone, farmers – many of them women – lost up to 80 percent of their produce and much of their livestock. Devaluation of the local currency has led to a sharp increase in the cost of food, putting real strains on everyone but having a particularly strong impact on women, many of whom head households. Most women work in the informal sector, and as a result they receive no fixed income, social benefits or coverage by social safety nets. Therefore, when the cost of living goes up – as it recently has – women’s coping mechanisms are stretched even further. Cholera, which has taken almost 10,000 lives and sickened several thousand more, has put a special burden on women who must make up for the lost income of their relatives who succumbed to it. Haiti has the highest female mortality rates in the Western Hemisphere as well as the highest mortality rates of both infants and children under the age of five. In rural areas, women who lack of the resources to take care of their children face exceedingly difficult choices: keep them at home in grinding rural poverty and paltry state support, or send them away to host families to face an uncertain, often risky future.
Through its programs of advocacy and direct accompaniment to rural and urban women alike, SOFA’s work gives Marie Frantz an overarching view of the daily challenges of Haitian women, which is as sweeping as it is detailed.
“Haiti is going through a profound social, economic and political crisis,” said Marie Frantz. “And this crisis is having a profound impact on women.”
Undoubtedly, the worsening economic situation and political uncertainty affects men and women alike. But women face additional challenges. Underlying the problems are cultural norms which perpetuate discrimination against women and promote unhealthy, often demeaning roles for them. Haiti’s recent elections glaringly illustrate the problems: out of 232 and 1621 candidates for Senate, only 22 and 129, respectively, were women. Yet Haiti’s electoral process, not yet complete, has elected only men so far to Parliament. Even if the Haitian constitution requires 30 percent of female political participation, this provision alone is insufficient to overcome strong patterns of male domination in political parties and women’s unequal access to education. Also illustrative of the challenges women face was when former President Martelly himself verbally abused a woman during a political rally, and used vulgar language in response to legitimate question posed by her. As explained by Marie Frantz, until these norms are explicitly challenged, it will be difficult to generate the sweeping policy and legislative reforms needed to elicit real changes to women’s daily lives. It will also be very difficult to achieve more balanced gender relations.
“Formidable” is a word that often comes to mind when describing Haitian women. On International Women’s Day 2016, Church World Service celebrates their resolute fortitude and courage. But this is also a bittersweet commemoration, as we remember the prevailing circumstances which impose such mettle upon them. As it applauds Haitian women, CWS also bears prophetic witness to the magnitude of the entrenched gender inequality they face and to Haiti’s current socio-economic challenges – consequences of which Haitian women disproportionately carry on their backs.
Jasmine Huggins is CWS’s Senior Policy and Advocacy Officer based in Washington, D.C.