“Until the Day I Die”: Gerta Louisama on Haitian Women Winning their Rights
By Beverly Bell
August 2, 2011
I am a peasant women and the daughter of two peasants. I’ve been a victim of this society which ostracizes women.
My father was a member of Tèt Kole and I chose to follow him and join the organization. I’ve gotten all my knowledge through Tèt Kole. I’m illiterate, but thanks to the organization, after women helped me for three months, I could even spell my name and write a little. Even though I’m getting older, I’ll keep going to school.
Tèt Kole started on September 6th, 1986 and the Jean-Rabel massacre was on July 23, 1987. We lost 139 peasants [when the two largest landowner families in the region hired hit men to stop Tèt Kole’s work for land reform]. Then we had a second massacre in Piatte in 1990. The big land owners, the army, and the local police are responsible for those blood baths. It was asking for these necessities that got the peasants slaughtered. They were well-planned massacres to subdue us.
It’s like the peasants have no rights because they don’t have access to clean water, no access to roads, no access to health care, no access to free schooling. And if we protest for those rights we’re entitled to, they will send in the police or MINUSTAH [UN peacekeeping troops] and they’ll spray tear gas, arrest people and beat them up. You don’t even have the right to protest for your rights.
Legally speaking, both men and women have the same rights. In this country, we have plenty of laws. They’re on paper, they’ve just been set aside. Part of our movement is to get these laws respected.
Us Haitian women, we have a lot of challenges, but as peasant women we have even more. We truly carry the burden of society. We’re the ones who hustle to feed the household and send the sick to the hospital if need be. We women, we work the land, we raise cattle, we transport merchandise like plantains, yams, and black beans to the capital. If we don’t work, there won’t be any flow of goods.
One of the priorities of the women in Tèt Kole is to get things working in our favor. We have to address economic problems and social problems. We need ways to process the foods we produce, we need access to seeds. We need to help women who’ve been victims of domestic violence get support in the courts.
What the women do in Tèt Kole is to group ourselves together in teams of 10 to 15 women. We work in the fields together, we do laundry together. We do personal development training. The chances for peasant women to go to school are small because they don’t have the financial means, so the trainings are designed to remind them that they’re also human and part of the society, even though society has marginalized them. They help peasant women understand their strength in society and understand that as for those services they’re entitled to. The government’s not doing them favors, they’re their rights.
Agrarian Reform Needed
We’re asking the government to do a thorough agrarian reform. Most times, the peasants don’t own the land they are working on. The peasants should have ownership of the land they’re working. Land needs to be taken away from people who aren’t using it, and the state needs to let go of land it holds on to that could be used for farming, and be given to the peasants who are working it, with the other [agricultural] resources they need to farm.
Actually, the women have been tirelessly working the small plots of land they’ve been able to get their hands on, so we should be the ones to own them. We peasant women think the government has to have in its agricultural plan a way to help us hold onto our land in the mountains so we can produce food, and help us get seeds and tools. We don’t have tools to work with, we don’t have seeds, we don’t have technical support.
The problem is even worse for women because both the family and the society keep us from owning land or other big assets. We’re not entitled. If the land isn’t in the hands of the government or the church, it’s mostly for the sons.
Say my father dies. If he owned three hectares of land and he had two sons and me as a daughter, he’ll never say that I can have one hectare and each son receives one hectare. Me, I’ll only be entitled to 1/4 hectare or at most 1/2 hectare, and the extra will be divided among my brothers.
And if I was living in common-law with a man, if he died, I’d need to race to get myself off the land, even if I didn’t have anywhere else to sleep. I wouldn’t have any right to stay on the premises.
Another priority for the Women’s Committee is all the people who don’t have birth certificates. The state has no respect for the peasants. People may have a piece of paper but it might not be valid, because the number on it might be the same as on 15 or 20 other certificates; only one person has the actual birth certificate and all the others are just photocopies. This comes out when the children of the peasant women have to go study or take care of something [legal]. Also, they used one birth certificate for people from urban areas and one for those from the countryside [this has since been changed]. I’m 42, and up til this day, I don’t even know if my birth certificate is valid. Maybe if I go to get a passport one day, I’ll find out.
Threat of Cholera
The lack of respect for peasants is also why today cholera is spreading throughout the country. There was no plan from early on, and that’s why it’s killed so many in all the departments [states], especially the poorest who can’t get medical care for themselves. In remote areas, people might need to carry the person with cholera four to five hours on a stretcher to make it to the hospital. [Cholera can kill within 4 to 6 hours after infection.] Where I’m from there’s a joke: since [the village of] Savanette has no roads, cholera can’t travel there. Actually, if it were to hit Savanette, no one would survive.
They talked about sending Clorox, but we haven’t gotten any. They’ve told peasants to use soaps to wash their hands but some of them don’t have the money to buy soap, which costs 12 gourdes [33 cents]. Cholera is an even bigger burden on peasant women because they’re the ones that have borne their children and that are responsible for the household.
If there were to be cases of cholera in Savanette, we as an organization would have to get involved. We’d have to go to the local radio stations and tell people to do preventive medicine.
“You find there are men who really misunderstand women. They assume that the women are increasing their strength against men”.
Where we are, we only see outsiders when there are elections and the public officials need votes. Once the officials have been elected, you won’t see the senators again. Let’s not even talk about the president.
The fight to change the conditions of women living in the country is coming from men as well as women of Tèt Kole. This isn’t a movement of women against men, but really against the society which has isolated women. Women and men have to join together to fight. Generally as peasants, whether men or women, young or old, we’re all fighting for our rights, and men have to have that same mindset of aligning themselves with the women in this struggle.
You find there are men who really misunderstand women. They assume that the women are increasing their strength against men. But in Tèt Kole, we’ve made lots of efforts to show that our work is to change the conditions of all peasants. We’re showing that this isn’t a movement of women against men but rather a movement against the society which has isolated women.
Based on how things are going, we can almost say we’re losing the battle fast. We are slowly but surely going backwards. But as long as we are breathing, we can’t get discouraged. We are responsible for changing the conditions of our country so we’ll continue to fight.
But so far, we haven’t seen any real positive outcome. That’s why we say we’ll continue to fight, even though we won’t see the changes; our kids will see them.
I have one daughter and I have given all my energy to the organization. I have given back what the organization has done for me as a peasant woman who struggles against a society that excludes us. If it wasn’t for Tèt Kole, I wouldn’t have any value in this society. I never have thoughts of life after I leave Tèt Kole, because I see myself being involved until the day I die.
Many thanks to Patricia Bingué And Bill Davis for translation, and Deepa Panchang for help editing.
Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance and is working on the forthcoming book, Fault Lines: Views across Haiti’s New Divide. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. You can access all of her past articles regarding post-earthquake Haiti at www.otherworldsarepossible.org/haiti.