When International Women’s Day was first celebrated 100 years ago, it began as a day to honor the contributions of women to the various areas of life—historic, social, economic, literary, and development. Today it should also serve as a reminder for the impediments to progress that still exist for women all over the world especially because studies in international development consistently link the advance of a nation to the education and economic progress of women.
As the global struggle for gender equality continues the day we celebrate women and honor their legacy should also be a day to sound the alarm in the name of human rights and international development both of which are significantly hampered by gender inequality.
In Haiti International Women’s Day has long been celebrated in Haiti to honor the legacy of women in history such as Anacaona, Cecile Fatiman, Catherine Flon, Marie Jeanne, Sanite Blair and others. It is also a day for activists to foreground some of the issues that Haitian women currently face as well as to highlight some of the activism and advocacy by Haitian women in response to these issues. Looking back to Haitian women over the past 100 years we can look at the strides made by remarkable women alongside the challenges that continue to exist, most of which were significantly aggravated by the earthquake of 2010.
One of the narratives that we often hear about Haitian women’s history recognizes it as a long trajectory that began before the revolution but that has been shrouded in silence. But some feminist writers like Beverly Bell through her powerful recording of oral history using the istwa mode in Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Resistance and Survival remind us that the stories are there, unfolding and in circulation if we only take the time to listen. In Walking on Fire Vida Telcy tasserts this saying, “Haitian women’s history is such a long story…If we started talking about it we’d have to stop midstream because otherwise we’d be talking all night.” In another istwa one of the women recalls women’s contributions to Haitian history: “From Anacaona we were born. When you take our history—the struggle against the invaders, the war of independence, and everything that came after—there were women standing strong, right next to the men, but they’re rarely told about in history.”
The earthquake provides us with one way to do both these—to examine the issues Haitian women are facing today and to acknowledge what some of the homegrown, grassroots, innovative and organized ways that these issues have been tackled. It goes without saying that one of the most pressing issues in post-earthquake Haiti is the thousands of internally displaced people still living under the flimsy cover of tent cities in Port-au-Prince and other areas.
This issue gives rise the insecurity and vulnerability of women and girls who have been prone to sexual violence at astounding rates. Along with sexual violence, there is also the increase in trafficking and prostitution since the earthquake. One of the reports published about this problem include Our Bodies Are Still Trembling: Haitian Women’s Fight Against Rape serves as an example for how Haitian groups like the Commission of Women Victim to Victim (KOFAVIV) partner with organizations abroad for a different model of what relationships to NGOs can look like. KOFAVIV has also been an instrumental resource to the growing numbers of rape victims and survivors in the tent cities, helping to advocate for women and address prevention measures.
The Haitian feminist journalist Samia Saloman has picked up where feminist foremothers Myriam Merlet, Magali Marcelin and Ann-Marie Coriolan left off. The loss of Merlet, Marcelin and Coriolan in the earthquake was blow to the feminist movement they helped to begin, but the measure of true leadership is the legacy it leaves in its wake. Women like Saloman are part of an important generation who were mentored by these feminist foremothers and continue to do the work on the ground. Because the pursuit of justice is a human rights issue that is not only gender specific, it is also important to consider how women organize around different causes regardless of whether women or men, girls or boys are at the center. Others like Lilliane Pierre-Paul, the radio journalist who spoke cogently about the banalization of the terror under Duvalier that was taking place in the midst of Baby Doc’s return. Another example of this is the mother-daughter team Nadève Ménard, Shadine Ménard and Evelyne Trouillot who mobilized efforts to protest the treatment of Haitian soccer players in Jamaica.
These are some of the every day acts of Haitian women among countless others. These acts may not make it into the historical record, but they are an important reminder that Haitian women are still making history doing and speaking for themselves. Haitian scholar and performance artist Gina Ulysse has said in her comments about the documentary film Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, The Pillars of the Global Economy, “Everyone else has spoken for Haitian women, yet, we have a history of speaking for ourselves. Today in Haiti 100 years after the celebration of the first international women’s day, a little over the year after the earthquake, listening to Haitian women speak for themselves is more necessary than ever.
Régine Michelle Jean-Charles is an Assistant Professor at Boston College in the Departments of Romance Languages and Literatures; African and African Diaspora Studies Program