GLOBAL NEWS | fall 2004
One Woman at a Time
Ercia Guillaume is lucky. A maid for a Haitian businessman in the city of Les Cayes, she enjoys “luxuries” few Haitians encounter: daily food, a steady income, 24-hour electricity (via her employer’s generator), a safe place to sleep. She has also been spared the brutal act women have faced throughout Haiti’s history of turmoil: rape.
Such basics are a far cry from the experience of most women and girls in this impoverished nation of nearly 8 million people, especially in the wake of political strife earlier this year (ironically, Haiti’s bicentennial).
The chaotic days preceding and following former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s ouster on February 29 fostered bloody revolts and urban rioting. Hundreds of women and girls became victims of sexual violence — a common occurrence rence when political unrest explodes in this Caribbean nation, according to Haitian human-rights groups and feminist organizations.
“A lot of women were violated,” Pierre Esperance, director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, acknowledged last spring.
Today, Esperance says that sexual violence against women — or, more specifically, politically motivated sexual violence — is nonexistent: “The [new] government will not condone violence against women.”
Nevertheless, lack of security is still a huge problem. Despite the presence of international troops, armed thugs outnumber police in many parts of this mountainous nation.
“We need for the insecurity to end,” says Guillaume.
While lack of security remains a major issue, so does Haiti’s dire economic situation. Not much has changed economically since March, when a U.S.-backed government was installed to replace Aristide and put the country back on the path to democratic elections.
“Haiti has nothing,” says Guillaume, a shy young woman who speaks in short whispers.
Nowhere is the everyday struggle of Haitians more apparent than in the mache, local markets that can stretch for miles.
Here is where the madansara — the merchant woman — does business selling anything she can: a cup of rice, bars of soap, used rags. With many women competing to sell the same items, a madansara can earn less than $1 U.S. a day — the average amount on which most Haitians survive.
The economic struggle women face affects the entire society. With parents unable to pay for schooling, many girls turn to prostitution; scantily clad female children are now a common sight, working streets in the formerly upscale neighborhood of Petionville.
The statistics are deeply disturbing. The average life expectancy for a Haitian woman is 50 years. She earns considerably less than her poorest male counterpart, though over 60 percent of households here are female-headed.
She and other women are trying to change attitudes as well as ease the crisis. [See Ms., Winter 2003/2004, highlighting the work of Haitian health pioneer Loune Viaud.] Danielle Saint Lot, Haiti’s Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism, believes the answer for improving women’s lives lies with education and job creation.
“If you educate them, they will educate their children differently,” she says. “When you offer someone the possibility to work and make money, people will be able to feel hope.’’
Shortly after taking office, Saint Lot helped organize a fair where scores of women from both formal and informal sectors displayed their talents and sold their wares.
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