PORT-AU-PRINCE – An anti-violence bill that seeks penalties for assaulting women may soon become law, a first in Haiti that would hold men accountable for domestic abuse.
It’s one step further in the ongoing battle of gender equality, said officials of the Women’s Rights Ministry. And the fight will not be easy.
Minister Marjory Michel, pushed for the bill’s addition to parliament’s agenda as her last mission before her term ends. But the ministry expects debates and delays with women holding five of the 99 seats in parliament who vote a bill into law.
“Five people is hardly a voice in parliament,” said director Yolette Mengual. “They alone can not enforce this as a law.”
The ministry on Tuesday met with 25 additional women’s rights groups, former ministers of the ministry and legal advisers to reedit the 498 articles of the bill. Every word of every line was critiqued of what Michel said was the product of more than two decades of advocacy and work.
“Women’s emancipation is not an action of today,” she said. “This is a result of the request for a better standard of living for citizens.”
Economic opportunities were sparse for Haitian women before the earthquake, but now options have dwindled further, the ministry said. With few resources to advance, women are left vulnerable and dependent on men, even when abusive.
While domestic violence cases have poured out from women living in tent cities, leaders of the women empowerment groups that helped edit the bill said issues of violence have roots within culture.
“What had started in homes went into tent cities,” said Olga Benoit, president of Haitian Women in Solidarity.
“There is a higher level of risks to be a victim of violence when you have people living in this situation,” she said. “The condition of vulnerability to be raped or put in prostitution is higher.”
Benoit said her organization has worked alongside the ministry to pass laws holding men accountable for rape, and they’re also focusing on targeting fathers who abandon their children.
“This must be acknowledged,” she said.
The Ministry of Women is also working with international non-profit organizations as they lead a countrywide campaign to stifle the increasing cases of abuse.
UNICEF, one of the largest supporters, has fully funded educational and training programs to empower women. Young students also participate in a UNICEF sponsored education program with the ministry where they take notes on the conditions and occurrences of violence in tent cities.
“We must start recovery with the economy and education,” Mengual said of the programs. “An autonomous woman is a free and strong woman.”
To garner more momentum for the bill’s passage, the ministry is seeking financial and political support.
Menguel travelled to New York in March for the launch of a new program called UN-Women. The program provides living essentials -including mattresses and hygiene products- for women specifically in tent cities. While in New York, Menguel spoke with President Michel Martelly about their ongoing mission.
“He supports us,” she said. But without a prime minister, little can be done. “The Martelly government has not been created yet.”
This legislation does come with support from current senators as well. Steven Benoit, Rudolph Joasil, Kelly Bastien and Lambert Joseph are among the most avid supporters of the bill and the ministry’s mission, officials said.
The ministry will continue to edit the draft of the bill with advisers before it heads to parliament where it will face critiques and possibly be voted into law.
But Minister Michel said the real fight must first begin with women’s self-empowerment.
“Women must first be conscious of their conditions and environment,” she said. “Married or single, all of them must feel the need to change these statutes. We must do this to make this condition improve.”