Haitian Women and Elections: Presidents, Politics and Power

5 November 2010

By Bev­erly Bell, Huff­in­g­ton Post

Recon­struct­ing Haiti is not about build­ings, projects, or money. It’s about power — about who gets to con­trol what the future Haiti looks like. Redis­trib­ut­ing power, and cre­at­ing a new soci­ety based on dif­fer­ent the­o­ries and prac­tices of it, are per­haps more impor­tant in the after­math of the Jan­u­ary 11 earth­quake than ever.

This pri­or­ity is not par­tic­u­lar to Hait­ian women. But they are most often the ones pro­pelling it, and they and their chil­dren have the most to gain from it because of the spe­cial bur­dens that poverty and inse­cu­rity place on them. For the major­ity of women, their work to trans­form power is focused on includ­ing the excluded: the peas­ants, the res­i­dents of inter­nally dis­placed people’s camps and shan­ty­towns, all those who have lit­tle voice or par­tic­i­pa­tion in national polit­i­cal and eco­nomic deci­sions and who rarely ben­e­fit from those decisions.

What could a new power par­a­digm that serves women look like? And how might a gov­ern­ment emerg­ing from the Novem­ber 28 elec­tions use its lead­er­ship to advance that par­a­digm? We asked Hait­ian women their thoughts on women, power, and the elections.

Elis­a­beth Sen­a­tus is a jour­nal­ist and mem­ber of the coor­di­nat­ing com­mit­tee of the Petite Riv­ière Shel­ter Cen­ter inter­nally dis­placed people’s camp in Léogâne. She describes her work as “ser­vice to humanity.”

Some man made a dec­la­ra­tion recently that he hopes a woman doesn’t win power, because if she does, all women are going to have power.

But me, I hope it’s a woman exactly for that rea­son, and because of the recent expe­ri­ence we’ve had with gov­ern­ment. I don’t ignore the fact that there are men who have beau­ti­ful dreams and who have capac­ity, but still I hope we get a woman as pres­i­dent. The entire world over, men want to gov­ern with­out women and pre­vent women from advanc­ing. They want women to stay in the home as moth­ers and inden­tured servants.

All that women would do in terms of decen­tral­iza­tion, devel­op­ment, edu­ca­tion, health… a woman could do every­thing a man could do but with more atten­tion to the needs of all soci­ety.
We need equity in edu­ca­tion, at least as many girls in sec­ondary and col­lege lev­els. We need edu­ca­tion — tra­di­tional, sex­ual, pro­fes­sional, fam­ily — which is at the base of social and eco­nomic power. We can address pros­ti­tu­tion by let­ting girls have a chance at edu­ca­tion. We want decen­tral­iza­tion [from Port-au-Prince], with ade­quate work oppor­tu­ni­ties and gov­ern­ment ser­vices and offices every­where. We want to cre­ate oppor­tu­ni­ties for creativity.

If women take power, we’ll have a lot to do to edu­cate every­one about women’s rights and respon­si­bil­i­ties and gen­der equity.

But a woman doesn’t need to be pres­i­dent to have power. If a woman is strong and is edu­cated and has the capac­ity to make deci­sions, that’s already power.

Claudette Wer­leigh is a long-time advo­cate for democ­racy, peace, and women’s empow­er­ment. She has served as prime min­is­ter, min­is­ter of social affairs, and min­is­ter of for­eign affairs. She is cur­rently sec­re­tary gen­eral of Pax Christi Inter­na­tional, and resides in Brussels.*

Hait­ian women par­tic­i­pate in pol­i­tics. We’ve already had a female pres­i­dent, we’ve had a female prime min­is­ter, cab­i­net min­is­ters, sec­re­taries of state, and par­lia­men­tar­i­ans. But an impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tion is the final goal. Will a politi­cian seek to ensure that the mar­ket ven­dors on the road­side, the char­coal mer­chant, and the peas­ant woman liv­ing in the hills can par­tic­i­pate in deci­sions that deter­mine their country’s pol­i­tics? Will she choose to spend pub­lic funds for edu­ca­tion and hous­ing? She is bio­log­i­cally the holder of life, but will she have poli­cies in favor of life?

When we talk about women in pol­i­tics, we should clearly define the type of women we’re refer­ring to. Until all women in Haiti, not only the elite class, have access to the decision-making process, we can’t say that they really par­tic­i­pate in the country’s politics.

Women’s involve­ment shouldn’t just be a mat­ter of their pres­ence, but of their abil­ity to offer an alter­na­tive course or to intro­duce some­thing that’s lack­ing. The whole world is orga­nized so you have polit­i­cal par­ties, you have a pres­i­dent, you have spe­cific ways for peo­ple to play their role in pol­i­tics. We have to find other ways that women can par­tic­i­pate. We have to find ways to bring the qual­i­ties that women have in other fields into polit­i­cal life, to make things work better.

*Nar­ra­tive is taken from an inter­view she gave in 2000 for my book Walk­ing on Fire: Hait­ian Women’s Sto­ries of Sur­vival and Resis­tance. When I wrote Claudette recently and asked I might reprint excerpts, she replied, “I can assure you that, a decade later, not only do I stand by every word I said then, but now that I have a broader expe­ri­ence, I am ready to extend those words to other fields of life.”

Mag­a­lie Bre­tou is a mem­ber of the Regional Coor­di­na­tion of the South-west (KROS), a coali­tion of small-farmer orga­ni­za­tions. She sits on the exec­u­tive com­mit­tee of the National Coor­di­na­tion of Peas­ant Women (KONAFAP), as well as the exec­u­tive com­mit­tee of the Coali­tion of Orga­ni­za­tions for the Munic­i­pal­ity of Belle-Anse (KODAP), which brings together women’s youth, and peas­ant groups. She also serves on the coor­di­nat­ing com­mit­tee of KODAP’s women’s division.

In the munic­i­pal­ity of Belle-Anse, we’ve made choices for two can­di­dates for the national Cham­ber of Deputies [the lower house] from within our women’s and peas­ants’ orga­ni­za­tions. We chose our can­di­dates together, and we’re all going to vote for them. We decided to do this because we needed some­one with accountability.

Both our can­di­dates are men. No woman wanted to put her­self for­ward in the elec­tions. Maybe in the future that will hap­pen, but we’d have to sit together as women and decide that.

We don’t know yet what can­di­date we’ll sup­port for pres­i­dent. Who­ever it is, we’ll all go vote for that per­son so that we don’t under­mine each oth­ers’ vote.

It could be good for us if we had a woman pres­i­dent, but it would depend on who it was. She could be some­one with a fancy skirt from Port-au-Prince who doesn’t even see us, who just says “This is how it’s going to hap­pen,” and “That’s how it’s going to hap­pen.” Peo­ple in Port-au– Prince usu­ally look to their own peo­ple in the cap­i­tal; they don’t see us out­side. Power will always be to their advan­tage. We don’t see our­selves reflected in them, as women or as peas­ants. They don’t rep­re­sent an open­ing for us.

We don’t yet have a way for rural women to inte­grate into pol­i­tics and into new forms of power.
What we need is lead­ers who come from the grass­roots, who we can choose, train, and send up. Not just for some women, but for all women.

Luci­enne Darger was ren­dered home­less by the earth­quake. She is now a mem­ber of the women-run lead­er­ship com­mit­tee of a dis­placed person’s camp on Camp Nationale Route de Frères.

The elec­tions won’t resolve women’s prob­lems. But to my mind, they have to hap­pen anyway.

A lot of peo­ple say they won’t vote as long as they’re liv­ing under a tarp, but if I can get a new elec­toral card [she lost her last when her home was crushed], I’m going to vote.

We’ve had so many men in office, we took beat­ings for them, but they never did any­thing for us. When we’re here in these tents, not even able to breathe, I ask myself, “Is there no gov­ern­ment in this coun­try? What are they say­ing or doing for these women who are under these tents?”

If I had the chance to vote for a woman like me, I would. Even if she couldn’t resolve my prob­lems, I might get more access that way. Maybe she’d have more com­pas­sion for women who are suf­fer­ing under tents.

But even then, I sus­pect that when we’re done vot­ing, she’d for­get we’re there. All the new lead­ers: once they’ve got­ten what they want from us, they won’t care any more that we’re liv­ing in camps. As soon as they are elected to the office they want, they’ll just for­get us.

Pha­lane Gilles has been study­ing social work in the State Uni­ver­sity for the past five years. She is now fin­ish­ing her dis­ser­ta­tion on pros­ti­tutes who were for­mer street chil­dren. A mother of two, Pha­lane doesn’t have to take on out­side work because her hus­band is “very under­stand­ing” and sup­ports the fam­ily while she stud­ies. She con­sid­ers her domes­tic work, how­ever, as a reg­u­lar job.

For me, the elec­tion that the gov­ern­ment, politi­cians, media, keeps talk­ing about: they make it seem like a sign of sta­bil­ity. But there are too many hid­den hands in this. At the core, in this polit­i­cal moment, it’s just another oppor­tu­nity for those who always con­trol every­thing to hold on to their power. Whoever’s elected, I believe they’ll con­tinue to be instru­ments of the impe­ri­al­ists and cap­i­tal­ists, peo­ple who want the coun­try to stay how it is –or if it changes, to change in the inter­ests of a few peo­ple while the major­ity stays in the same mis­ery they’re in.

What lit­tle I know about the Interim Com­mis­sion for the Recon­struc­tion of Haiti [the sur­ro­gate gov­ern­ment, half of whose mem­bers are for­eign] tells me that the head of state doesn’t have the space to really make a dif­fer­ence in Haiti. The pres­i­dent of the coun­try is a mar­i­onette. He proves that by his posi­tions toward those peo­ple who are sup­pos­edly com­ing to help Haiti. He gives in, he gives in. He seems like he’s work­ing for the inter­ests of the coun­try, but in fact he’s work­ing for those who only see in Haiti the pos­si­bil­ity to increase their power and their wealth. We know there are con­tracts going to multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions who have their own prof­its in mind. So whether it’s the admin­is­tra­tion that’s there now or another that takes power, the inter­ests of the for­eign­ers and of those who have noth­ing to do with the well-being of Haiti will predominate.

We’ve seen polit­i­cal changes in terms of women: more women in the par­lia­ment, even if it’s only a few; more women active in par­ties; more women who are agents of change in the polit­i­cal sys­tem. But most of these women –most, if not all– posi­tion them­selves within what they call fem­i­nism which, to me, is not true fem­i­nism. Why? Fem­i­nism which don’t con­sider first and fore­most the social real­ity of the coun­try that both women and men are liv­ing in, to me that’s not trans­for­ma­tive. Trans­for­ma­tive fem­i­nists don’t just deal with women, they ques­tion what’s at the core of all problems.

The soul of women’s prob­lems rests within soci­ety. Women’s prob­lems aren’t con­tained within women; they’re liv­ing within a larger soci­ety. As long as the eco­nomic foun­da­tion and the foun­da­tion of social rela­tions don’t change, noth­ing else will. As long as a few con­trol the finances of the coun­try, the vast major­ity will suffer.

A true trans­for­ma­tion of power to change polit­i­cal life in this coun­try: it has to sit in a rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment. Some peo­ple don’t like the word ‘rev­o­lu­tion­ary’, they find it shock­ing because it implies chang­ing a lot of things, and those changes are not in the inter­est of a lot of peo­ple. But if you don’t want to enter directly into the prob­lem, whether you call your­self a fem­i­nist or not, we’ll always stay the same.

Iliane Prospère resides in an inter­nally dis­placed people’s camp in Mar­tis­sant. She is an unem­ployed, sin­gle mother of three.

To resolve the real prob­lems of women, give us employ­ment. Now if I need work, even if I had three diplo­mas, I would still have to sleep with the boss to get the job. If all women got work, women’s lives would start to change because they play the role of both women and men. Men are absent from the respon­si­bil­i­ties of the house­hold. Women are the pillar.

For more per­spec­tives on women and elec­tions in Haiti, see “Haiti: Why Vote for A Woman?” and “Haiti, Women, and the Elec­tions: Fol­low­ing Africa’s Lead”.

Bev­erly Bell has worked with Hait­ian social move­ments for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walk­ing on Fire: Hait­ian Women’s Sto­ries of Sur­vival and Resis­tance. She coor­di­nates Other Worlds, which pro­motes social and eco­nomic alter­na­tives. She is also asso­ciate fel­low of the Insti­tute for Pol­icy Studies.