HAITIAN POLITICAL INSTABILITY AND WOMEN’S RIGHTS: A HISTORY OF STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE

By, Johanna Sacks

womens rights

Members of KOFAVIV (Commission of Women Victims for Victims) march on Haitian Mothers’ Day.

Photograph from Bureau des Avocats Internationaux


Abstract

Throughout Haiti’s history, both policy and politics have undermined Haitian women’s liberty, authority, and agency to advocate for change. The country’s patterned governmental instability, combined with enduring gender roles and violence, has prevented the potency of women’s organization and full political participation, as well as social inclusion on a national scale. This paper will examine the positionality of women in Haiti, due to a series of political forces that have created a system of structural violence, characteristic of exclusion and misogyny, further impacted by internal classism. Through an analysis of feminism and grassroots organization within Haiti, with context from Carolle Charles’ outline of the political turbulence of the country, the historical basis for the challenges of the struggle for gender equality and equity will be explored. Slow societal change with respect to gender is rooted historically in the physical and structural oppression and repression of women by Haitian governments and by the Haitian psyche. This necessitates inquiry seeing that it has had serious repercussions for how women are viewed and represented in Haitian society.

Keywords: Positionality, political instability, structural violence, feminism, classism, grassroots organization


“When women lead, change happens”- Jerry Rosembert, influential Haitian graffiti artist

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Photographs and mural by Jerry Rosembert


 

Introduction

The current positionality of women in Haiti is the result of more than two-hundred years of active marginalization from political and social spheres. Much of this inequity has its origins long before independence, however, governmental disorganization and power dynamics after 1804 have reinforced the national conception that women are inferior. The United States’ 20th century occupation furthered ideas of masculinity and male domination, tied to the colonialism of the past. Under the Duvalier dictatorship, many women became the target of particularly heinous state-sponsored terrorism and forced inactivity. Governmental action, fortified by well-established and accepted gender classifications, exemplifies how Haitian women’s circumstances have led to their marginal positionality, through a culture of exclusion.

 


Historical Basis

As early as the island of Saint-Domingue was colonized, women were confronted with inequality and a lack of opportunity in the nation’s economic system. During the enslavement of Saint-Domingue by the French, women slaves occupied the lowest spaces within society, with little opportunity to move up or to escape, chances more often afforded to their male counterparts (Sheller 2013). Soon after independence, government officials began to appeal to the masculinity and “maleness” of ex-slaves to create an ideological gendered division that would continue on as Saint-Domingue became Haiti. In the period of transition between slavery and freedom, the sharecropping system in southern Haiti was built with structural gendered differences, like unequal pay. Although women were the leaders of protests against these unequal wages and also unfair treatment, the system reiterated gender as a separating entity and gave women a lower and less respected societal status (Charles 1995).

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The Island of Saint Domingue, Map Jacques Nicolas Bellin, 1754

 

Exclusion followed into the creation of the Haitian state, as official laws discriminated against women’s legal and civil rights. Gendered differences in the eyes of the government were markedly defined in the succession of national constitutions that began in 1801 and continued into the 20th century. The language in these documents left women without the ability to vote or own property, making their legal statuses comparable to those of minors. Until 1915, a woman who married a foreigner would lose her Haitian citizenship (Charles 1995). This political rhetoric rationalized a nation-wide misogyny that strengthened with time, later permeating the household (Sheller 2013).

 

“No one is worthy of being a Haitian if he is not a good father, a good son, a good husband, and above all a good soldier.” –Article 9 of the first Haitian Constitution

Feminism and Class

In 1934, a group of intellectual and professional women organized together to create a specific feminist agenda in the Ligue Feminine d’Action Sociale (Charles 1995). The main focuses of the group were to achieve women’s suffrage and increased access to higher education. However, these goals did not pertain to the entirety of Haitian women. The rights fought for by the Ligue, like the right to hold public office, were insignificant to others who were poor, and socially and economically disenfranchised (Charles 1995). Feminism in Haiti, through the lens of the Ligue, represents a disparity in representation of its women.

 

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The founders of the Ligue Feministe d’Action Sociale, 1934. Image from Abernathy Magazine

 

Myriam Chancy (1997) cites Haitian feminism as “a defiant strain of Third World feminism,” including “a belief in the universalization of human rights, and a steadfast dedication to the uplifting of women in nationalist and global agendas” (45). It exists contrary to the prominent ideology of Western feminism that marginalizes women of color based on a nonfactual basis of a lack of education. Haitian feminists seek to topple the structure of hegemony that has given Haitian women their societal location, while combatting poverty and illiteracy. Many Haitian feminist writers have subscribed to the idea that the widespread liberation of women will allow the emancipation of all (Chancy 1997).

Despite the theoretical implications of Haitian feminism in contrast to Western feminism, such theory highlights a large dichotomy in thought about women’s rights in a Haitian context. Historically, the length of the feminist movement in Haiti did not include women of low socioeconomic status. The framework for women’s rights has mainly been from the educated elite, and mulatto, sector of society (Bell 2010). For this reason, the theory of Haitian feminism does not apply to Haiti as a sweeping definition of women who are involved in their advocacy. Instead, its terminology is largely limited to the elite circles of women who espouse it. Although the denotation of a separation between feminism in the developing and developed world is necessary, a further consideration of class and color distinctions is necessary the when discussing women’s rights in Haiti.

 

alice_garoute-devant-locaux-ligue-feminine-haiti-1950

Activists in Port-au-Prince; suffragist Alice Garoute pictured right, 1950

Photograph from Haiti Culture

 

In reality, there is a great divide in the modern women’s movement between poor women, middle class women, professional women, and the mainly mulatto class from the upper echelons of wealthy society. In bourgeoisie circles, the major push for political rights does not apply to the masses that need more basic representation and protections. Members of Haitian Women’s Solidarity (SOFA), a prominent grassroots women’s advocacy group in Haiti, wrote that women of the Haitian upper socioeconomic class “consider themselves as being without gender” (“Feminism and the Current Crisis,” 8). Discrimination against the less financially privileged groups has minimized the struggle of the masses, despite their overwhelming majority in population. Furthermore, poor and working women have been most affected by Haiti’s political instability (Charles 1995). Because the experiences among Haitian women differ so widely, it has been extremely difficult for them to unite under the common cause of feminism; in each area of society, feminism takes on a different meaning as the needs of women change.

 


Paternalism

The 1915 invasion of Haiti by United States armed forces and the nineteen-year occupation that followed left lasting political, social, and economic consequences on the country, and laid the groundwork for the political dictatorships that came later (Renda 2001). Through paternalism, or the assumption and assertion of power through the metaphor of fatherhood, the U.S. expressed superiority over Haiti, under the false notion that the country needed to be taken care of like a child. United States political interests led to a period of uncertainty and violence, with intention to minimize Haiti’s agency and the sovereignty of its people. Mary Renda (2001) calls paternalism a “cultural vehicle for violence” as well as “a form of domination” (15). The violence and domination expressed politically from the outside had gendered ramifications, especially at the interpersonal level.

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Image from Taking Haiti:  Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism (1915-1940) Renda (2001)

 

As an expression of masculinity, paternalism systematically connected femininity with weakness and fragility, moreover, a lack of power (Sheller 2013). Power personified through gender exceedingly impacted women as U.S. marines on the ground were violent and eager to express unethical control. This harmful and crooked expression of masculinity was enforced through heinous physical violence, namely sexual assault against Haitian women (Charles 1995). Such power dynamics not only physically disempowered women, but also signified that they were powerless socially because they were women. The occupation was another political event emphasizing Haitian women’s position in the power structure of the country, and was symbolic in that women were impacted disproportionately by violence. Outside of the United States occupation, paternal ideology has been central to the marginalization of women to a low status in society; it has associated only maleness with power and agency, which has prevented women from achieving equality in social spaces.

“Haitian’s women’s demand for equal rights thus not only defies the society’s traditional sexism, but also presents a challenge to the colonial tradition of exclusion: the demand for women’s equal rights exposes the non-existence of civil rights for most of the country’s inhabitants.”    -Myriam Chancy

The Household

Haitian women’s status is often emphasized within the household. Although many women have an important economic role within the family and in the larger national economy, familial power is usually strictly held by the family’s head male (Charles 1995). Anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown calls Haitian culture “a misogynist culture” (Sheller 2013, 174). At the 1993 Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentro {See AWID} in El Salvador, Haitian delegates shared that their husbands strongly believed “women should stay at home like the oxen” (“Feminism and the Current Crisis,” 8). Defining the role of women in terms of household labor and and child rearing is innately biased and limits women’s agency to their matrilineal duties. When similar beliefs are widely held, the household serves as a constraint on female autonomy that prevents organization and free thought. Such resistance to women’s self-determination at the lowest level of society provides a basis to sustain cultural gender norms and prevent women from organizing for fear of judgment or alienation. Additionally, the central role of women in the Haitian family {See Gabriella Khawly} is exploited by the state in order to reinforce these gendered stereotypes (Charles 1995).

 

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“Louis XIV of France” (2014). Painting by American artist Kehinde Wiley

This is the first featured work in Wiley’s Haiti installment of “The World Stage,” a project chronicling the daily lives and culture of black individuals around the world, in the context of globalization.


 

Duvalier Shift

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“Tonton Macoute” (2009), Painting by Haitian artist Burton Chenet, from series “Turbulent Years”

 

Before Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s rise to power, women and children were considered by the Haitian government as political innocents, left out of the political sphere and also free from the state-sponsored violence associated with it (Trouillot 1990). However, as Duvalier reached the height of his power, women were captured and detained, exiled, raped, and even executed (Charles 1995). Blatant political-based brutality against women and the enemization of dissenters was unseen in this way before, despite Haiti’s long and tumultuous political history. It has been noted by Haitian feminist scholars that the Duvalier regime was the most active opponent of women’s empowerment in the history of Haiti’s government, damaging the effectiveness of the country’s women’s movement significantly (Charles 1995).

“My only enemies are the enemies of my country.” -Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier

Such a political shift caused a change in the way Haitian women were able to express themselves socially and politically. Using vodou and the outright physical threat of the Tontons macoutes, the Duvalier regime restrained women’s speech and organization (Chancy 1997). Most women were unable to meet, protest, or disseminate political literature during this time, for fear of state violence, while others were forced underground. Women who condemned the state were viewed as subversive and even unnatural. Such language symbolized power as the male gender, while disempowering and disabling many women trying to have their voices heard. Duvalierism endorsed the idea of a woman only seen and rarely heard, and prevented women nationwide from speaking out against their positionality.

 

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Mural by Jerry Rosembert, Photograph by Patrick Ferrell


 

Modern Movement and Transition to Grassroots

The Ligue Feminine d’Action Sociale, despite its exclusion of many Haitian women, did make progress that spearheaded the modern women’s movement and is partially responsible for its underpinnings {See Marlène Rigaud Apollon}. After achieving suffrage, the group fought for the reform of laws that unfairly affected women, while receiving significant backlash from the government. Leaders of the Ligue were criticized for “abandoning” their familial roles. In 1946, elected governors decried, “women were responsible for all the ills of Haiti,” citing a student protest led by Léonie Madiou, in which she was arrested (Chancy 1997, 41). The Ligue disseminated its revolutionary journal and demanded the change of unequal laws (Chancy 1997). In 1950, Article 9 of the Constitution was amended to consider women equal under the law, after a diverse group of more than 1,000 Haitian women brought a petition to the steps of the Constitutional Assembly (Chancy 1997, 42).

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Paulette Poujol-Oriol, prominent 20th Century Haitian feminist, president of the Ligue Féminine d’Action Social (1997-2011), and writer of “Le Creuset” (1980)

 

After the fall of the two-fold, thirty-year Duvalier regime, it became possible for Haitian women to begin to protest the unjust treatment and silencing they endured, and have their needs and agendas heard on a national stage (Charles 1995). Thousands of women protested, demanding a change to the repressive system and corruption in place (“Feminism and the Current Crisis”). This period represents the success of the grassroots movement, inclusive of all Haitian women, regardless of class. On April 3, 1986, more than thirty-thousand women marched in Port-au-Prince to demand jobs and the prevention of gender-based discrimination and violence (Charles 1995), demonstrating their agency in the fight for women’s rights and formal grassroots organization. This protest was organized by Haitian women from varying backgrounds, and represented what Charles (1995) calls, “Haitian women’s growing consciousness […] as a new collective subject for social change” (153). With more political freedom and during a period of relative political calmness, the grassroots movement generated a national presence, in a sphere that previously only legitimized the agenda of the feminist elite.

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Women march to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, 2012 in Petit Goave. Photographs by Spencer Platt.

Although Haiti’s women still face many challenges due to their positionality, Haitian-grassroots organizations have made recent significant progress in the areas of women’s education, healthcare, and political representation. These groups have been able to transcend some of the strong class divisions present in Haiti (Charles 1995), in order to strengthen the push for women’s rights, without necessarily operating under Haitian feminism. The National Coalition to Advocate the Rights for Women (CONAP) seeks to unite women from different social groups to unify the growing women’s movement, with eleven different sub-organizations of varying backgrounds. Several women’s groups have been formed to advocate for the situational interests of women and their specific needs, like the National Coalition of Peasant Women (KONAFAP), which argues nationally for the needs of women in rural areas {See Natasha Joseph} (Bell 2010). The Commission of Women Victims for Victims (KOFAVIV) contributes medical treatment and support for victims of sexual violence, and lobbies in the national government against gender-based injustices (“KOFAVIV”). Haitian Women’s Solidarity (SOFA) currently has more than five-thousand members, and works to promote women-specific needs like healthcare and the prevention of gender-based violence, while creating sustainable jobs for women across Haiti (“SOFA”).

 

MADrePosters read: health, leadership, security, respect, love, education.    

Photograph from MADRE, whose grassroots advocacy groups organize workshops in Haiti to promote policy chance and prevent gender and sexuality-based violence.

Such grassroots organizing is also seen among the women of the Haitian diaspora, particularly those living in North America, who have reorganized in new political spaces outside the borders of Haiti to promote Haitian women’s rights. The immigrants that fled during and soon after the Duvalier regime set up significant networks of social clubs, political organizations, businesses, and churches, particularly in New York City (Charles 1995). Freedom of expression has allowed Haitian-American communities to organize politically and express ideas of opposition openly. Women of the diaspora have been at the forefront of political opposition, highlighted during the Duvalier years, and further exemplified with recent activism (Charles 1995). Haitian identity, still buttressed by religion and language, epitomizes the agency of a movement constrained by political circumstances.


 

Conclusion

The structural violence Haitian women experience exists because of a superstructure of power and hegemony that has been emboldened throughout Haitian history, by policy and by dictatorship. Haiti’s politics have long excluded women, and significant gender ideologies and biases must be combatted in order to create gender equality in the country. Haitian women do have their own agency and the potential to change the engendered norms that keep them marginalized through grassroots organization. However, historically and thus far, the strength of the fight for women’s rights has been limited by the prevailing structure of influence.

 

 

 


References

Bell, Beverly. 2010. “A History of Haitian Women’s Involvement: International Women’s Day Part II.” Huffington Post: The Blog. Last modified May 25, 2011. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/beverly-bell/a-history-of-haitian-wome_b_493305.html

Chancy, Myriam J. A. 1997. “Introduction: paròl gin piè—zèl.” In “Framing silence: revolutionary novels by Haitian Women.” 1-23. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Chancy, Myriam J. A. 1997. “Nou La: Haitian Feminism as the Crossroads Politics of Theory and Action.” In “Framing silence: revolutionary novels by Haitian Women.” 24-45. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press

Charles, Carolle. 1995. “Gender and Politics in Contemporary Haiti: The Duvalierist State, Transnationalism, and the Emergence of a New Feminism.” Feminist Studies (21) 1: 135. JSTOR Journals, EBSCOhost (accessed March 9, 2018).

 “Feminism and the Current Crisis in Haiti.” 1994. Off our Backs 24 (3): 8. UF Catalog, EBSCOhost (accessed March 9, 2018).

“KOFAVIV- Commission of Women Victims for Victims.” 2008. Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti. Last modified March 8, 2008. http://www.ijdh.org/2006/03/archive/kofaviv-commission-of-women-victims-for-victims/

Renda, Mary A. 2001. “Introduction.” In “Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940.” 10-36. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press.

Sheller, Mimi. 2013. “Sword-Bearing Citizens: Militarism and Manhood in Nineteenth-Century Haiti.” In Haitian History: New Perspectives, edited by Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall. New York: Routledge.

“SOFA Celebrates 20th Anniversary.” 2006. Haiti Support Group, translated by Charles Arthur. https://haitisupportgroup.org/sofa-anniversary/

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1990. Haiti, state against nation: the origins and legacy of Duvalierism. New York: Monthly Review Press.

 

 

Featured image from OneCountry.org

 

 

 

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