In the tropical dawn of a September morning, Marie-Ange Noël left her sleepy home city of Jacmel, on Haiti’s south-east coast. She boarded a small charter plane for the 25-minute flight over the mountains to Port-au-Prince, avoiding the criminal gangs that control 60% of the capital and its southern entrance.
She waited hours at the airport, not daring to venture outside to face the surrounding lawlessness before her flight to Montreal, Quebec. Within hours, she was at the bedside of former missionary Sister Rachel Vinet, the founder of rural women’s organisation, Fanm Deside, which means ‘determined women’ in Creole.
“She placed her confidence in us and her love for us was evident in her final days,” says Noël, Fanm Deside coordinator, of the Sister of Good Counsel. “She taught us to seek out the most vulnerable and accompany them. She inspires our struggle today.”
Fanm Deside’s struggle to assist rape victims and raise public awareness about the situation of Haitian women, of whom an estimated third are victims of sexual violence, is not getting any easier.
Since the assassination in July 2021 of President Jovenel Moise, criminal gangs have strengthened their hold on the Caribbean nation, killing 1400 and kidnapping for ransom 1000 people during 2022.
The UN has documented the gangs’ use of collective rapes with victims including girls as young as 10 and elderly women, as a way to terrorise the popular neighbourhoods of the capital. While rural areas have been largely spared the horrors of the gang rapes of the Port-au-Prince slums, a patriarchal system perpetuates endemic violence against women that is often hidden in remote areas.
“Women are always the most affected by any social, economic, political or cultural problem,” says MarieAnge Noël, who has deplored the femicide of schoolgirls, gang rape videos shared on social media and cases of incestuous rape of young girls in rural communities. “The situation is even worse for women with the collapse of the Haitian political system, as the economic elite and politicians have armed gangs to repress the population, particularly women.”
Founded in 1988, Fanm Deside has assisted thousands of sexual violence survivors. Throughout 2022, the organisation supported 508 victims of different kinds of violence, 469 of these were women.
Many cases came from the isolated villages of the South East department, often only accessible on tortuous mountain paths on foot or by motorbike taxi, where archaic misogynistic attitudes persist, and women are often “punished” by their spouses for perceived negligence of childcare, housework, bad cooking or refusal of sexual relations.
Fanm Deside is present through a network of rural representatives who look out for such cases and help the women report rape cases and file charges. The organisation also has a temporary safe house for women in acute crisis situations, which provided shelter this year for 70 women and young girls.
Often, the latter are pregnant rape victims who need a safe place to give birth. One of the demands of the organisation is to create jobs for rural women, who lack literacy skills and training. Many, often single parents, manage to survive producing grains, vegetables and fruits that they either consume or sell to a network of local tradeswomen, known as “Madan Sara” in Creole.
The Madan Sara, named after a migratory bird that finds food wherever it goes, resell the produce from rural areas at regional markets and in the capital Port-au-Prince. “We are everywhere,” says Jocelyne Jean Louis, national coordinator of RAMSA (Assembly of Madan Sara of Haiti), an organisation that represents 48,000 tradeswomen across the country.
“We are present in every section, every commune of the country, and we are the backbone of country’s food security.”
The Madan Sara travel to market on the back of precarious lorries, exposed to accidents on bad roads, and are vulnerable to rape, kidnapping and robbery by armed gangs. For the last two years, gangs’ stranglehold on the Martissant neighbourhood at the southern entrance to the capital, has complicated access for women from the southern peninsula, often leaving produce to rot.
“The Madan Sara give a lot to the country, but the government gives nothing in return,” says Jean Louis. “We need training and literacy skills. And we need to sit at the table with decisionmakers in order to get the recognition we need.”
And the decision makers are, mainly, male. Strategically, the women of Fanm Deside in Jacmel have prioritised working with men, running focus groups and awareness raising events with men including motorbike taxi drivers, rap singers, police officers and members of the judiciary.
Rap music presents a particular challenge, as its lyrics are often misogynistic – in 2018 Fanm Deside campaigned successfully to ban the former president, Michel Martelly, a singer with a notoriously anti-women message, from appearing at the Jacmel carnival.
The organisation then recruited some rap singers to go with the women to schools and talk to youth about the importance of treating women with respect. “We cannot limit ourselves to working with women if we want to see social change,” says Marie Ange Noël.
“We have to involve men and promote positive masculinity. Change will be slow, but it will come.” The organisation usually holds public discussions on Fathers’ Day on responsible paternity, and a Valentine’s Day couples’ night promotes dialogue on topics including the division of domestic labour and the advantages of the presence of fathers in children’s lives. Such work is supported by priests of the Diocese of Jacmel.
“Many men are starting to become aware and are talking about it, often reflecting at home with their families. We have seen motorbike taxi drivers transporting rape victims to seek help, and men asking us to mediate discussions in domestic conflicts.” This is a positive change, as a few years ago, the male reponse to a domestic conflict would have been to beat the woman, Marie-Ange Noël reflects. “We also try to work with boys, as young as possible, as they are the citizens of tomorrow.” A month after the death in Montreal at 93 of Sister Rachel Vinet, the women of Fanm Deside are reflecting on the nun’s legacy. “Without her, Fanm Deside would not be what it is today. We have a responsibilibity to share her values of solidarity, love, and leadership for women with future generations.”
Mary Durran lived in Haiti for several years, working as a UN human rights monitor and journalist. She was also a freelance journalist in Central America in the 90s, based in El Salvador, contributing to Catholic News Service, the Guardian and the BBC World Service. She is currently program officer with Development and Peace – Caritas Canada. She lives in Montreal.