Women struggle for rights as Haiti recovers
The devastating January 12th earthquake hit hard at the Haitian women’s movement, taking the lives of a number of leading activists. Prior to the earthquake, activists like Anne-Marie Coriolan, Myriam Merlais and Magalie Marcelin were advocating to reform the judiciary and to create an infrastructure to protect women and girls against violence. A task much needed now, as violence against women increases when countries are in crisis.
UNDP spoke to one of the two women ministers in Haiti (the other 16 ministers are all men) to assess how the loss of key activists affects the struggle for women’s rights. Marjory Michel, Minister of Women’s Affairs, talked about the challenges for women in a new country that is being built – one in which nearly half of the households are headed by women.
Michel also stressed the importance of involving women in reconstructing the country, not as passive aid recipients but as key players in the process.
“Programmes like UNDP’s cash-for-work are important because they ensure women’s involvement, employing them and thus giving many heads of households the necessary income to sustain their families,” Michel said.
Around 40 per cent of the workers currently employed by the cash-for-work programme are women. The initiative helps jumpstart the local economy, providing short-term jobs to Haitians to clear rubble and rehabilitate essential social infrastructures, such as street repairs and electricity.
Lagging behind in social indicators
Of the country’s 10 million inhabitants, 52 per cent are women – 42 per cent are below the age of 15. Child labour is a severe problem. According to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, 100 per cent of Haitian girls between the ages 5 and 9 work – in the informal market. Nearly half of all children are not enrolled in schools, and almost 60 per cent of women cannot read or write.
Early marriage is also common. Under Haitian law, the minimum legal age for marriage is 15 years for women and 18 years for men.
Haiti also has the highest fertility rate in the region: 4.8 per woman (between the ages of 15 and 49). The country also has the highest maternal mortality rate in the region: 670 deaths for every 100 thousand born.
Violence against women
Haiti has the highest rates of women affected by violence in the region – and one of the highest in the world. World Bank figures estimate that 70 per cent of Haitian women have been affected by some kind of violence, either in domestic or public. These figures have increased in the past years, according to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights.
Haiti ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW in 1981, (but the first reports only started to be submitted in 2006). The government took the commitment to prevent, punish and eradicate acts of discrimination and violence against women. In 2005 rape was made a criminal offense. But the Haitian Constitution still does not prohibit sexual discrimination. The country lacks specific laws against domestic violence and the majority of the cases of abuse are not reported to authorities. Furthermore, many reported cases lack proper investigation and processing, which generates a pattern of impunity.
Economy –Nearly 50 per cent of Haitian women are economically active – the highest percentage in Latin America and the Caribbean. But the majority of women are employed in the informal sector, and income disparities are striking: women earn less than half of men’s wages.
Women in politics – Only 5 per cent of deputies are women. In contrast, the average rate of women in the lower house of parliament in Latin America and the Caribbean is over 20 per cent (among the highest rates in the world). Of all of the 135 Haitian parliamentary seats, only eight are occupied by women.
Empowering women is crucial to shape the country’s future. Today, over 40 per cent of families are single headed; the majority is lead by women. The challenge now is to spearhead policies that address women’s needs, building a new country where women, men, girls and boys share equal rights and opportunities.