The issue of domestic violence is not a new one in Haiti, but its criminalization is new.
“It is only recently that there is some pressure that forced the government to at least acknowledge it,” Charles said, whose work at Baruch concentrates on feminist studies in Haitian society and Haitian immigrant communities of North America.
“Once here in the U.S., Haitian women are more likely to go to domestic violence organizations, because the organizations are here,” she said. But in the case of Haiti, “there is no infrastructure for anything. This means they recognize their situation and are looking for a way out. For a long period of time there were no organizations catering to these victims.”
Efforts to gain women’s rights in Haiti have been slow, tedious, and at a very grassroots level. It wasn’t until 2005 that rape was criminalized under Haitian law. Lobbying by survivors of sexual assault and violence, accompanied by the Haitian Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and mobilization of women’s groups, they were successful in pressuring the administration to change the law.
Five years later, the movement would take a devastating hit when founders of three of the country’s most important advocacy organizations, Myriam Merlet of Enfofanm, Magalie Marcelin, of Kay Fanm and Anne Marie Coriolan, of Solidarite FanmAyisyen (SOFA), were killed in the 2010 earthquake.
Does Haiti have a misogyny problem?
“Clearly, in Haiti misogyny exists and there is a display of some kind of machismo,” Charles, said. “There is a whole literature about machismo in Latin America. I would say that Haiti, shares some of those things, also. But it’s a different manifestation of male dominance.
“In the U.S., you will never see men bragging about it,” she said. In Haiti, men in particular brag about their abuse, including sexual assault. In fact, in Creole the expression for rape is a euphemism allegedly coined from a literary character who raped a woman.
“Kadejak” or “M’fe yon kadejak sou li” is supposedly taken from Haitian author Justin L’herisson’s 1906 novel, Zoune Chez Sa Ninnaine, where the main character, Jacques Cadet (Kadejak), goes through great lengths to seduce a woman with the intention of raping her.
“This has become a kind of cultural bravado, and this became part of the language,” Charles, said.
“People will trivialize it. So in talking about someone who was raped, instead of talking about it like it is a crime, they will say ‘ M fe yon kadejak,’( I did a kadejak). So it’s trivial. It’s young men or boys, and is considered part of a young man’s sexual exploration. This expression is very common for people to use.”
Still, there is some progress in how Haitian culture is beginning to address sexual assault and violence against women.
In a recent a commercial aired on Radio Television Nationale d’Haiti’s (RTNH), Haiti’s national television network’s Facebook page, a young woman is depicted in front of the camera with visible bruises and a black eye after being assaulted by her partner for the very first time. After several physical altercations and the excuses she provides for the abuse, the last scene shows a now deceased victim on the floor after having been beaten to death.
Under the video, RTNH posts the message, “Ann sispann tolere move zak kap fèt sou fanm. Nap di; Non ak vyolans! (Let’s stop tolerating wrongful acts against women. We say, no to violence).
Unfortunately, what the commercial lacks is a solution for the woman facing the abuse. Citing an organization that supports victims rather than pointing the blame at them, or a public service announcement geared toward helping those women willing to leave their situation, would be a step further in providing the help such women need.
As it stands, the commercial lacks sympathy and instead emphasizes that had the victim left the first time, she wouldn’t have met her tragic demise. While we should commend RTN for this groundbreaking commercial, it reveals a need for dialogue about the stigma that perpetuates the re-victimization of survivors.
“Rather than only looking at culture, I would look at structure of government, issues of rights in Haiti, level of state development and the economy, and show the paradox of women being very important to the economy, yet they are completely disempowered,” Charles said.
While Haiti buckles under the pressure of a plethora of societal ills and systemic issues stemming from an abhorrent lack of infrastructure, women continue to suffer the most from the instability. Many organizations that had previously gained traction in providing services and support to female victims of violence have since lost funding and are now defunct.
“Every time you raise women’s issues in Haiti, because there are so many problems, many people will tell you that it’s not the priority,” Charles, said. “They will tell you that the issue of women is not the priority.”
While a visit to any Haitian marketplace displays women as the majority, indicating a high participation in the country’s domestic consumption, the notion that this economic presence would somehow translate into some sort of political muscle is quickly dismantled.
Whereas, in some parts of Africa, like Senegal, women have been successful at mobilizing and using their economic strengths to pressure the government on their issues. In Haiti, few, if any, efforts have been recorded.
“Why is that?” Charles asked. “I don’t have the answer, but it’s there. One always wonders why, even at the level of government.”
In Haiti, less than 5 percent of women are a part of the government, Charles said. The rate of participation by women in “political organizations even in the US is less than 20 percent.”
“The rate of participation [by women] in political organizations even in the U.S. is less than 20 percent. And in representation, if you look at Congress you don’t even have 20 percent women, compared to places where you have 50 or 40 percent.
“In Haiti you don’t even have 10 percent. You don’t even have 5 percent. So all these things have an impact on issues like domestic violence and the capacity of women to put pressure on the state, on the government, in order to make changes.”
As much as domestic violence goes under-reported on an international scale, in Haiti, the lack of infrastructure compounded by the issue of rights and the capacity of women to organize is what continues to stunt the movement.
“When you report it, what you are aiming to do is have the government give some kind of response,” she said. Laws “reflect norms and values within the society as a whole.
“Think about gay marriage. Up until 1970 if you were gay, you could be put in a psychiatric hospital because it was considered a disease that could be cured. Not more than 20 years later, it is part of the law, despite not being accepted by a lot of people. But the reason that you can get there is because you have mobilization and organization of those who are victims.”
As the month of March comes to a close, and the international celebrations of womanhood wane, the hard work and concerted efforts to reach gender equality by 2030 continues.
In a step forward, Port-au-Prince’s Quisqueya University will host the International Interdisciplinary Conference on Gender Research. The conference will offer a platform where researchers and activists can present studies and reports on gender equality and have a discussion about some of the issues encountered by women from all segments of society, and give credence to the popular Haitian saying, “Fanm Se Potomitan” – women are the backbone of society.