US groups rally to support Haitian women

Haitian expatriates and Americans try to revitalize activities repressed by the military regime

LILIAN MAURICE flits from friend to friend, wearing a loose white dress with the word ``Haiti'' stitched across the front.

She embraces one person, giggling. With another, she ex-changes a kiss on the cheek and a few words in Creole. Covering her head is a traditional Haitian scarf. Though Ms. Maurice has been in Boston since March, Haiti is never far from her heart.

But Haiti has not been kind to Maurice. Because she founded a youth organization in Port-au-Prince and helped unemployed women, she was arrested four times in two years by the military government. Maurice was beaten and raped by the police. She lived in hiding off and on from November 1991 until seeking refuge in Boston last spring.

Marie Josa St. Firmin's story is similar. After attending a ceremony marking the anniversary of the death of a murdered friend in 1991, Ms. St. Firmin was followed home by the military. She fled. Her mother was arrested, beaten, and held for 22 days, St. Firmin says. ``They kicked the kids. Then they locked the house and left the kids on the street,'' she says.

Death threats didn't halt Rose-Anne Auguste either. Ms. Auguste, a nurse, will receive one of four Reebok Human Rights Awards on Dec. 7 for her work teaching and treating Haitians in one of the worst neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince. She puts in 12-hour days, tending to her patients in their crowded shanties.

These women were among hundreds who gathered at a conference at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Nov. 5 to discuss justice and empowerment for women in Haiti.

And like the majority of Haiti's approximately 3.6 million women, these three have not escaped the repression brought on by the military junta that ruled Haiti for the last three years or the effects of poverty, exacerbated by United States- and United Nations-sponsored embargoes.

``Women are prisoners in Haitian society,'' says Marie Andrine Constant, vice consul at Haiti's Boston consulate, a member of the Haitian women's group Kay Fanm before she moved to Boston in July.

But these women are not disheartened. ``You see that people keep on fighting,'' Ms. Constant says.

And they are not alone. Last July, a group of about 40 women in Boston gathered to raise awareness and help combat the violence against women in Haiti, calling themselves ``HaitiWomen.'' As summer turned to fall, the island nation's military junta was deposed, and the country's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, returned.

Dessima Williams, the group's founder and chairwoman, saw President Aristide's return as her chance to ensure that Haitian women's needs would be addressed with the country's restructuring. HAITIWomen's top priority was to convene the Nov. 5 conference where women living in Haiti shared ideas with other women from Canada, New York, and New England. HAITIWomen now plans to draft a report on the participants' recommendations and present it to Aristide's government.

HAITIWomen's work is only the latest effort in mobilizing support for Haitian women within the United States. The Association of Haitian Women in Boston (AFAB) was formed in 1988. Four years ago, AFAB members traveled to Haiti to teach women there to read and loan them small amounts of money.

Following the 1991 coup, a third group, Haitian Women in Massachusetts (FANM), formed. Only about 10 members strong, the group focuses on providing emotional support to Haitian women in Boston through monthly meetings. Boston has the third-largest Haitian population in the US.

``We wanted to let Haitian women know they should gather together and organize themselves,'' says Janie Lafleur, secretary of FANM. ``We wanted them to know they can be in politics.''

Women from all of these groups say the Haitian culture has historically discriminated against women. ``We are suffering because of the political problem, but we are also suffering at home,'' Ms. Lafleur says. ``The men, they consider us a kid, like a child.''

Educational opportunities there are dominated by men, especially in the countryside, according to the New England Observers Delegation (NEOD), a group formed in October 1993 to accompany Aristide back to Haiti under an agreement later broken by military leaders. The group has made four fact-finding trips to Haiti during which they interviewed Haitians from all walks of life including teachers, human rights monitors, community organizers, and peasants.

Women are favored for low-paying and often dangerous factory jobs because they do not mobilize to protest their deplorable working conditions, Constant says. UNICEF reports that women working as farm laborers earn only 60 percent to 75 percent of what their male counterparts earn.

Though the formation of women's groups in Haiti has traditionally been difficult because of sexism, new opportunities opened up with the 1986 downfall of Haiti's dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier.

Today, hundreds of women's organizations exist in some form throughout Haiti. Kay Fanm, the group to which Constant belongs, has about 200 members across the country. An NEOD report says that during the `80s, Haitian women made up 70 percent of the work force, the largest percentage of women workers in Latin America.

During the last years of the coup, however, women were the targets of rape and violence as the military government looked more desperately for ways to dismantle Aristide's support, the NEOD report says.

The little cooperation among Haiti's women was virtually halted at this time. ``All the members of the groups we worked with went into hiding. Whatever people said during that period [the military] would consider [pro-Aristide], and they were beaten,'' says Lunine PierreJerome, a member of AFAB.

That period of dark history behind them, women in Haiti are celebrating Aristide's return. But they are wary as well. ``The issue in Haiti is not going to go away,'' Ms. Williams says. ``It's really about overturning the apartheid structure there.''

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