A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
“Why… Why fight such a painful battle if at the end of the day I can bring no real change to the lives of my fellow citizens?”
This was the thorny question posed to me by Michelle, a female community leader during a workshop on power relations in the city of Ouanaminthe in northeastern Haiti. There were more than fifty female community leaders present. In this region of the country ‘politics runs in people’s blood' and those taking part had resolved not to participate on the fringes, but to stand as candidates in their own right. In 2010, dozens of women stood for election to political office at various levels.
A long list of challenges
Before delving into my response to Michelle’s question, it’s important to understand how Michelle describes herself and her role in her community. For Michelle, this was about conceiving the source of her power as a woman in a patriarchal and male chauvinist society; as a rural woman of modest income in a political system where power is strongly centralized; as a citizen in a corrupt and dense political environment where political power is obtained by means of purchasing votes; as a Haitian in a country where political and economic decisions seem to be dictated from the outside; the list of challenges would go on.
Michelle campaigns in a grassroots organization in the area of Carice, in the northeastern region of the country. This is an organization that works with political and community leaders to implement their development plan for their area and enhance local resources, all while taking into account the needs of women and youth. Michelle was elected in 2006 as a member of the city council in her hometown. She still holds this political position in addition to her economic and family responsibilities.
Women in politics – a waste of time?
About fifty passionate hearts were awaiting my response to Michelle’s question. For a second or so, I panicked. What if participation in politics was indeed a waste of time for the women in Haiti? As a group leader, I could provide an analysis of the political environment, help prioritize what to do and determine ways to participate in spite of these challenges. But the answer to this fundamental question “why in spite of all?” was beyond my reach and these women knew that. My hesitation worked in my favor as in the minutes that followed I came to understand that the answer is and must be from them.
“That is what they wanted to hear from us,” said a young female participant. “That we have more noble and constructive things to do as women, that our children need our time, that our aging parents need our loving care, that the sick need our presence and comfort. But what will happen if at the end of the day, we, women and young people realize that we are not carrying out our responsibilities as citizens?”
A battle worth waging because…
- “Because we exist and have the right to work for a better future for others and for ourselves,” another woman chimed in.
- “Because we are citizens like everyone else and the result of our absence is up to now unsatisfactory. Those who are in power are not better than us.”
- “Because we must prove that we exist.”
- “Because we are the alternative.”
- “Because we have potential like the others, and our community needs us.”
- “We are already women in power because, to be here, to advocate in organizations we have fought and overcome numerous obstacles. We play our part, in spite of everything…”
While I was listening to their comments, I realized once again that the commonly held belief that women do not want to take part in politics is a myth. All they want is the proper space to exercise their leadership, an environment that allows them to keep their self-confidence, and the possibility to be certain they can and will create profound change for their community.
Leadership and solidarity in the earthquake's aftermath
This exchange between the women about their power reminded me of what I witnessed in the aftermath of the January 12, 2010 catastrophe. While the situation seemed chaotic and the outcome somewhat dark, the women and men of Haiti demonstrated great leadership in organizing the first emergency response, the first acts of solidarity.
This momentum of getting involved at the beginning led to more civic engagement. In fact, hundreds of groups of men and women were convinced they could contribute to a real and equitable reconstruction in Haiti.
A responsible and active citizenry
In early 2013, as external assistance dwindled, the most tangible aspects of Oxfam’s support remained:
- The empowered grassroots teams which continued to claim the right to decent housing;
- The women who organized to stand up for their right to participate;
- Those who take part in the efforts to prepare their community for other possible natural disasters;
- The young men and women committed to fighting violence against women and for a safe environment for women and girls.
These young men and women have managed to keep fighting for the sustainable change desired by all in Haiti.
To encourage a responsible and active citizenry in Haiti means to invest in an inclusive and transparent system of governance, based upon the fundamental belief that all men and women have the right to shape their future.
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