Haiti, like everywhere else, has a complex relationship with women. Women’s work in and out the home is invaluable, sometimes the difference between: eating or not, schooling or not, and medical care or not. The majority of Haitian households are headed by women who are divorced, widowed, or never married. These women are eking out a living by the skin of their teeth—resourceful in a resource-strapped world. But despite Haitian women’s contributions to society and economy, they remain trapped invarious levels of social and institutional discrimination. They face barriers to adequate housing, education, employment, and justice. On the whole, urban-based women fare a little better than rural-based women, but not by much.
It’s within this context that Grassroots International partner, the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP), identified structural violence as an impediment to women’s participation in the movement more than 30 years ago. While MPP’s work is inspiring across the board—reforestation through agroecology, providing farmers with extension services, and building eco-villages for people displaced by the 2010 earthquake—what fascinated me the most during my visit with them this year is their long-term commitment to parity for women in the movement specifically, and Haiti more broadly.
During a long conversation with Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, the executive director of MPP, on a hot summer night in Papaye, he ceded the floor to MPP’s deputy spokeswoman, Ghislaine St. Fleur, when I asked him about the status of women in the movement. As he put it, “Women must speak for themselves on this issue.” Ghislaine began by saying, “To understand the road MPP has and continues to travel, one must first understand rural Haiti’s landscape 40 years ago.” She went on to describe a society in which women were not educated, did not have freedom of association and were ruled by their menfolk. That reality, as she saw it, presented a dilemma for MPP because “MPP has been committed to women’s equal participation and representation in all levels of the movement from the very beginning.”
For MPP the choice was clear. The organization could either encourage women to meet clandestinely (and risk retaliation in the form of physical violence) or embark on a public education campaign to convince entire communities of the value of women’s participation. MPP chose the latter through a simple approach: if families want to improve their lot as farmers then everyone engaged in farming need the training and support offered by MPP. This approached enabled them to at least meet and work with women in groups.
But once MPP began meeting with women, it soon discovered illiteracy was a deeper problem that would prevent women from participating within all levels of the movement. Families preferred to send their sons rather than their daughters to school, and as a result multiple generations of women were illiterate. Undaunted, MPP began a program in which it financed girls’ and women’s education. As a matter of fact, when Grassroots International began our partnership with the MPP 22 years ago, we funded women’s education and leadership training along with other projects.
Over the years, MPP has educated hundreds of young women from primary school to university. (It has also provided basic literacy training to adult women.) Nothing convinced rural families of the value of their girls, and their education, more than the success of MPP’s new cadre of educated young women. Rather than hold their girls back, families became zealous advocates. MPP’s young women have attended university nationally, regionally, and internationally. Many are trained in medicine, agronomy, management, and information technology to name a few.
As Nanouche Enaillo Forestal, who herself benefited from MPP’s and Grassroots International’s funding of her education, explained to me, “The only stipulation MPP places on the women they educate is that these women return and work within the movement for a number of years. This guarantees the growth of the movement and knowledge sharing.” But once these women are educated, Nanouche explains, “they are not only a resource for MPP, but also the country. Once they complete their service within the organization, they are free to work where ever they want. And they bring the perspective from the peasant movement wherever they go.” Nanouche herself currently works as an in-country consultant for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.
As I walked the through paths and agroecological gardens of MPP’s Centre Lakay, their training center, I met many women and young women working in the movement as agronomists, information technologists, planners, managers, and trainers. While the MPP is extremely close to achieving 50/50 parity in the movement, it’s not satisfied. It remains committed to ending structural violence against women in the movement, rural communities and Haiti. Ghislaine, MPP’s co-spokesperson, told me with confidence that MPP understands that “A movement that doesn’t include women is incomplete and cannot succeed.”