CAP-HAÏTIEN, HAITI — Most countries celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, but Haiti’s women have a day of their own. On April 3, 1986, in the wake of the mass protests that overthrew the Duvalier dynasty, over 30,000 women marched on the streets of the capital, Port-au-Prince, for democracy and rights.
It was a period of social effervescence that saw the birth of many of Haiti’s women’s organizations, including the country’s first shelter for women and girls who had experienced domestic violence. “That march was a key moment in the history of Haitian feminism. It has opened an avenue for the creation of the Ministry on the Status and Rights of Women,” says Philona Jean, the department coordinator for the ministry’s northern branch.
At 57, Jean has been a prominent voice in the women’s rights space in Haiti since 2005, when she founded AFAK (in Creole, Asosiyasyon Fanm Karenaj, or Association for Women from Carénage), an organization based in Cap-Haïtien that helps women learn trades and find jobs. Previously, Jean, who has a law degree, worked at a law firm and taught French at secondary schools and universities.
While her organization remains active under new leadership, Jean now oversees 19 communes in northern Haiti along with 16 other staff members. But the ministry’s budget is tiny — for the 2023-2024 fiscal year, it accounted for 0.1% of the total state budget. The office doesn’t have enough personnel, no petty cash and no cars, Jean says, which makes dealing with gender or domestic violence even more difficult.
“It simply doesn’t cover all the office’s needs,” she says. “Some victims come here and seem very agitated. Unfortunately, we don’t have a psychologist to help them.”
Like most Caribbean countries, Haiti doesn’t have a law that criminalizes femicide — understood by legal experts as the murder of a woman that is motivated primarily by her gender — or a public database on gender violence. It’s also one of only two countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (the other being Guyana) that doesn’t criminalize domestic violence.
The ministry, whose mission is to fight for equality for women, often turns to nongovernmental organizations such as Asosiyasyon Fanm Solèy Dayiti (AFASDA), which works with those who have experienced gender-based violence. AFASDA, Jean says, has more resources than the ministry’s office. It even has a shelter to accommodate women who’ve suffered or are at risk of domestic violence.
AFASDA receives funding from several international organizations, such as Lawyers Without Borders and the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives.
That doesn’t mean that NGOs have it easy. For Cassandra Saintilma, a counselor at AFASDA for those who have experienced violence, both men and women in Haiti need to better understand what gender-based violence is. “Sometimes women who have been victims of violence come to us for help,” she says, “and after their attackers have been arrested, they come to us in tears and say that it wasn’t what they had in mind.”
Jean thinks similarly. “Women need to be better educated on these issues, because many of them are still afraid to talk about the violence and abuse they suffer, whether at home, at work, etc.”
Despite the challenges of fighting gender-based violence, Jean remains determined and committed to the cause. “It’s a job I do with love. If it wasn’t, I would have given up by now. For me, it’s not just a job — it’s a calling.”