Women build empowerment through AFAB

The year is 2000 and several members of AFAB, the Association of Haitian Women in Boston, are on-air at a local radio station, talking about domestic violence. The women encourage listeners of the Haitian program to participate in an upcoming domestic violence prevention forum organized by AFAB and several other groups.

The radio session is a good one; the host is open to the discussion and he asks the women sound questions. AFAB member and teacher Marie-Carmelle Bonhometre is eloquent in articulating the factors that make family violence difficult to discuss in the Haitian community, and even more challenging to eradicate.

These factors include deeply-ingrained cultural values, language issues, religious concerns, print illiteracy in some cases, culturally-competent services for Haitian clients, and recent immigration laws. “How, for example,” Bonhometre says into the microphone, “does a woman who has difficulty speaking English call 911 and explain to the police what is going on in her home? How might she face the challenge of a service provider who is racist?”

The day following the broadcast, the radio engineer opens the phone lines to listeners—and a backlash is heard. Several male callers take issue with “those women” who encourage Haitian women to leave their husbands.

“Why are you always defending women?” asks one. Another caller tells listeners that some women can encourage their husbands to beat them just by looking at the men in a particular way. A fourth caller wants to know if the AFAB members are themselves married and truly understand the nature of marriage. The caller then proceeds to call the women a variety of names which won’t be listed here.

Clearly the radio discussions on domestic violence have touched nerves in a community with an often firmly-established distinction between the private and the public. To discuss domestic violence is to step into the private domain of the home; it is to air dirty laundry. Following the backlash the women regroup to consider laundry detergent; and to prepare for more radio spots, and a TV spot which will serve as outreach for the upcoming forum.

The intense reaction is just an example of the many challenges AFAB faces in doing its work. Its mission says Executive Director Carline Desiré is to “equip women with the tools necessary to improve their social, economic, and political statuses so that they can take control of their lives.” To do this, AFAB works on the grassroots level in providing social services, education, and community organizing to the great Boston Haitian community, the third largest Haitian community in the United States.

Flash forward to 2012 and AFAB’s members—activists, educators, health care professionals, students—have achieved much. They have worked on successful battered women’s campaigns, developed its Domestic Violence Program, and founded a youth group whose purpose it is to raise the self-esteem of community youth (an extremely popular program). There is the also the KAFANM center, running strong with 6 units of affordable housing for Haitian families. Through it AFAB assists newly-arrived Haitian immigrants in applying for public housing benefits,and facilitates workshops on housing issues such as tenant rights and home buying. AFAB members also teach English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) and literacy classes, do a monthly radio program on women’s issues, lecture on Haitian women’s issues, advocate around child care, rape, housing and welfare issues—all in the name of empowering Haitian women and families.

On any given day, 330 Fuller Street—AFAB headquarters and KAFANM center—will be filled with women and men coming in for ESL classes; friends and clients dropping by to say hello; volunteers from local universities and from the community coming in to work; women in need of services stopping by; and children (one who invariably has broken loose and is racing through the front hall). Area residents, some of whom initially had concerns about KAFANM in their neighborhood, have come to know and feel comfortable with AFAB’s presence. Not only does the work stem from this place, but here “women can to talk about their struggles, their hardships, and find strength to make meaningful changes in their lives,” says Desiré.

AFAB did not always have headquarters, nor did it always have a budget or paid staff. From the time it cohered in 1988 until 1997 it operated on nothing but pure energy, political savvy, and a lot of footwork. And this is what makes it different from other social service organizations which hit the ground funded says Desiré. AFAB emerged in 1988 from a core group of 10 women; friends who had either gone to college together or who knew each other from their work in other organizations working on Haitian issues. Many of the women say they felt their voices were not being heard in those groups and that women’s issues were not being discussed.

“Women’s rights,” says Desiré, “were considered outside of human rights.” This discrepancy compelled the women to begin thinking and organizing around women’s and family issues. She adds, “the fact is, we began working with no budget and no office. We worked out of our homes and with money from our own pockets—and this was not easy.”

Today, KAFANM is one of our greatest accomplishments,” says Desiré, 24 years after the women sat down together initially to think about how to empower Haitian women and families. The safe haven that KAFANM represents stands alongside the sturdy network that is AFAB’s Domestic Violence Program—which now provides direct service to more than 300 clients; conducts domestic violence prevention workshops for more than 250 individuals, and outreach to more than 1,000 residents on a yearly basis.

“Over the years, women and men from the neighboring cities of Brockton, Cambridge and Lynn have requested an AFAB presence in their respective communities,” says Desiré, and in 2011 “several Haitian clergy members sought domestic violence training and a stronger collaboration with the organization for violence prevention in their churches.” Recently, Rosie’s Place, a Boston women’s shelter, sought AFAB’s help in providing support groups for their many Haitian female clients.

Despite AFAB’s commitment to Haitian women and families, its extraordinary human resources, steady growth, and long history—a 25-year celebration is scheduled for October of next year—funding continues to be a challenge. The current economic climate has hit non-for-profits hard, at the same time that the need for the services AFAB provides has increased as Haitian families are affected by the economic down-turn. Mindful of these challenges, Desiré says “we embrace the work and strongly believe, with perseverance and determination, we will survive for many more years.”

For more information on the work of AFAB, to support AFAB through a donation or as volunteer, contact AFAB and Carline Desiré at 617-287-0096 or cdesire@afab-kafanm.org.