For Women in Haiti, a Fresh Start

Changing the way women are viewed is crucial for Aristide reforms

'LAPLI demokrasi tonbe, lavalas espwa desann, li le pou nou organize'' -- ''The rain of democracy is falling, the flood of hope is running, it's time for us to organize.''

That was a refrain many Haitian women spontaneously broke into as they participated in a historic, three-day conference on women's issues, held in January in the town of Dame Marie on Haitaplin tiny benches for up to five hours at a stretch, with the sun's rays streaming through the windows, the 380 women tirelessly exchanged ideas and experiences. They heard lectures on the role of women in Haitian history, on human rights, on AIDS. And at the end, they elected a board to help promote their needs.

''If women fight to change the situation, they can organize themselves, create work and a place for themselves in the society,'' boasted Sourveni Dorset, representing the Women Are Life organization.

''We have so many problems,'' said a weary-looking Velia Ville Fran. ''I have 12 kids, and I can't send eight of them to school. In our area there are no resources. Some of us borrowed clothes just to come here. But we're not discouraged: President Aristide is back, and we're sure things will get better.''

When President Jean-Bertrand Aristide opened up the Ministry of Women's Rights and Conditions as one of his first official acts after being restored as president in October, he became the first president in Haiti's 200-year history to make a commitment to improving the lot of women.

''President Aristide wanted this in 1991, but at that time only eight of the 25 women's groups he met with felt the need for it,'' said Lise-Marie Dejean, who was asked to lead the ministry.

''They reasoned that the country should first get its footing and we could come in after,'' Dr. Dejean said.

But Dejean explained that following the 1991 military coup d'etat, women were systematically persecuted, which may in part explain the president's strong commitment to the ministry and the rural women's motivation in gathering in Dame Marie.

The goals of the women's ministry, symbolically located in the former headquarters of the Haitian military, range from legalizing women's rights to creating a national advisory council for families. Soon, she says, she will be opening offices in each of the country's 135 communal districts.

''If I could do one action before we finish our term, it would be to institute a credit bank for women,'' Dejean said. ''It's a need imminent and urgent.''

Resources, however, are scarce. The government allocated only $1 million, although the ministry requested $9 million. Still, Dejean believes that much of what her ministry cannot accomplish can be done in collaboration with the other ministries and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Changing the way women are perceived in Haitian society is crucial to the success of improving their condition. Most NGOs working with women's issues have followed the traditional agenda of family planning and domestic training.

Yet the average family size -- 6.2 children per family in the countryside and 4.8 in the capital of Port-au-Prince -- hasn't changed in decades because there is no educational follow-up to the program. Despite several national literacy campaigns, the 25 percent literacy rate remains the worst in the Western hemisphere.

Many training programs for women focus on culinary skills instead of academics, but graduates are unable to find jobs or apply what they have learned in their family environment.

''Many women cook outdoors on the street, not in fancy kitchens,'' explained Dejean. ''So our courses should focus on nutrition, or building market stalls for the women. As with everything we are trying to do, we want the programs to go along with the reality of the country.''

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