"If we rural women can organize ourselves together to form a bloc, we could accomplish a lot of things," says Yvette Michaud, founder of the National Coordinating Committee of Peasant Women (KONAFAP by its Creole acronym). The committee is a first-ever effort to unite, on a national basis, the voices and interests of this large and excluded sector of the population.
KONAFAP was formed two years ago by women from the 56 member organizations of the Haitian National Network for Food Sovereignty and Security. KONAFAP is still in a building stage, and to date only a few organizations are active within it. Those members are excited about the future potential of the group.
Here, three organizers within KONAFAP discuss the status of rural women, challenges they face to organizing as women, advances they have made toward gender justice, and what they hope for in a rebuilt Haiti. The women are Marie Berthine Bonheur from Croix des Bouquets, Bertine Petit from Cabaret, and Yvette Michaud from Grand Goave.
Please talk about rural women in Haiti, and why you are organizing a national committee.
Yvette Michaud: As peasant women in Haiti, we saw that all the activities focusing on women always happened in Port-au-Prince. The coordinator for women from the [non-governmental organization] Action Aid in Brazil invited me to Brazil to learn about women and natural resources. When I returned to Haiti, we in the Haitian National Network for Food Sovereignty and Security passed a resolution to say we were going to establish a national women's peasant organization.
The coalition is so young and we have budgetary problems, so we haven't reached out to all the women's groups yet. And everything we do in still in cooperation with mixed-gender groups.
Bertine Petit: An organization of peasant women means a lot. Even Haitians in the government reject peasant women, even the Ministry of Women. They don't remember peasants or our culture at all.
Michaud: We know there are more women in Haiti than men, and more people in the countryside than the city. We already work in agriculture, we work preserving fruit, we do the marketing and sell the food, we plant, we raise the children. What women do, we don't say that the men can't, but they can't do the things that are necessary for survival without us.
Marie Berthine Bonheur: Women are the poto mitan, central pillar, of society. Where there are women, there are many sacrifices made, and a real development of the possible.
What challenges do peasant women face, and what changes are you advocating?
Petit: What are called rights, I don't think Haitian women, especially peasant women, know them.
Bonheur: Like little maids.
Michaud: More like slaves. On paper they say that all people have rights. In reality that's not what happens.
In the mountains, the state hasn't established any social services for us. Women don't have health care and don't have hospitals to deliver their babies. You can't even get a birth certificate in the countryside. Women need good education for themselves and their children.
You used to see boys going to schools more often than girls. Only men had the rights to education and leisure. Things have started to get better. But even today, women have to cook the food, wash, iron, get the water, raise children, and take the children to school.
One of our main objectives is for women to know their rights from their homes to the society. We're ready to do everything possible to get our rights respected. We're ready to hold demonstrations, do sit-ins, circulate petitions, and do advocacy, to demand services from the state. The state owes us; it's not a gift. It's their responsibility to give services to everyone, especially peasants.
Petit: We need a state that, when they see something that needs to happen, follows through. There is no action. No leadership.
Bonheur: Women experience violence, too. And when we go to court, the men are usually the judges, and they tease and mock the women, especially in cases of rape. They receive women very poorly.
Michaud: Rape happens a lot especially on little girls, 12 or 14 years or so. But in the past ten years or so, there's been an improvement in the violence. Now that men know that women can denounce them, they temper themselves a little. But that doesn't mean that the violence has gone away. And it's not only physical, it's verbal, sexual, emotional, all sorts. We know that other kinds of violence can be just as damaging as physical.
That's one of the reasons why we've started to organize as women, apart. In a mixed-gender group, if a woman's husband beats her, she can't say anything about it. But in all-women's groups, she can get support from others and advice.
What has been your experience of organizing women, especially in women-specific groups?
Michaud: There are some violent men who prevent women from attending women's meetings, because they know women can speak freely and badly about them. Sometimes the men use violence to stop the women from going, but it's much less these days than it used to be. Usually women are prevented de facto because they have so much work in the house.
Or what often happens in mixed-gender groups is that women are there, but they don't get to participate. You don't hear women's voices. They have to bring the water, make the food, clean the rooms. They are almost there for service instead of as members.
Why a group like this one is important is that women's organizations give space where we can think about ourselves and our future. In women's groups, women are more comfortable to speak. They participate freely. We want to create more of these spaces so women aren't servants while men think and talk.
Bonheur: They have more force.
Michaud: For example, the MPP [Peasant Movement of Papay] has three branches: mixed, women, and youth. The women have special activities they do, like preserving fruit. The women have a cooperative, and a popular credit bank that charges 2% interest. We do big activities, big demonstration to put our demands forth, big demonstrations about the non-governmental organizations who say they are giving aid and then don't. The women of MPNKP [National Peasant Movement of the Papay Congress] have held demonstrations to put out their demands, especially about the reconstruction.
We have a lot to say about the upcoming election. We want women to participate, both in voting and as candidates. We want to have our own representation in the parliament.
For International Women's Day [March 8], we had a big demonstration that left [the village of Papay] and went to Hinche. Women came from everywhere. It wasn't a celebration because our country is in a disaster, but it was a day of reflection.
What are your hopes for the post-earthquake reconstruction?
Bonheur: The reconstruction plan the foreigners have is no good.
Michaud: Right; their agenda doesn't correspond with ours. We have things to say about the reconstruction plan. The country depends on Haitians. It's true that we have a government without a plan, and the international community is imposing what's good for it. If Haitians want Haiti to have a better future, we are the ones who must decide what that future is and construct it.
I know there are a lot of women who are working with men in civil society toward proposals about the reconstruction of the country, alternatives so that everything isn't left in the hands of a small group which doesn't really have the will to change the country: corrupt government officials, the international community giving orders, the elite who doesn't want change because it's against their interests.
There is a lot of chance to develop agriculture. We produce the food that is healthiest, without GMOS or chemicals.
Haiti is a mountainous country. We can't say that all the mountains will get irrigated, but they could do more irrigations canals, mountaintop catchment lakes, and cisterns. That way, the country could produce so that its children can eat.
We especially need a decentralization of services. A lot of parents lost children because they had gone to Port-au-Prince to learn skills or go to university. If we had decentralization, all those people wouldn't have died. All the services in Port-au-Prince must be out in the countryside, too. We are people, too.
Petit: They could put universities in the countryside for peasant children, plus give us recreation, schools, health care. The government needs to address the needs of the peasant sector.
Bonheur: All the state offices that are in Port-au-Prince, there should be branches in the countryside. We need to be able to stay on our own land.
It would be good to have a fund to buy local seeds. It would best favor the Haitian peasantry to plant our own seeds on our own lands. It's up to us to say what type of seeds we want. We can't accept these foreigners giving us GMO seeds which aren't good for health or land. GMOs will do us harm and aggravate the problems of our agriculture.
Petit: All Haitians have to put their heads together to reconstruct the country.
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, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.