Today is International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality”. The objective is to build momentum and encourage states to make new commitments to effectively implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are 17 goals intended to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all by 2030. Women’s empowerment and gender equality are included within the SDGs, as empowering women and girls to be equal citizens is fundamental in achieving a prosperous and sustainable world.
Haiti will be challenged to realize this goal. Throughout the country, women and girls continue to be disprivileged by patriarchal norms that are embedded in public and private life. The underrepresentation of women in government makes combating prevalent issues such as sexual harassment and gender-based violence difficult because women are not sufficiently involved in the process.
According to UN Data, in 2015 4.2 percent of the seats in Haiti’s national parliament were held by women. However, this diminutive number has now fallen to zero as Haiti’s new parliament is void of any female representatives. Senate President Andris Riché was quoted in the Miami Herald stating, “Despite all the years of existence of our nation, we are incapable of electing women in Senate. We will be 30 guys deciding the future of this country, while 53 percent of the population are women and they assume all of the economic responsibilities.”
Haiti’s constitution does establish a 30 percent electoral gender quota on female participation, but the absence so far of women in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies demonstrates the prevalence of patriarchy within the political system. Solidarite Fanm Ayisyen (SOFA) or Haitian Women’s Solidarity links the low level of political participation of women to gender disparities in educational attainment, which leads to women having a lower social standing in male-dominated political parties.
But women’s underrepresentation in political affairs is not the only way that women are disadvantaged. Women also face injustice through harassment and gender-based violence. In a submission to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) mentioned a study which found that 75 percent of workers have been victims of sexual and moral harassment. However, these incidents tend to go unreported as sexual harassment is a taboo in Haiti and many are unwilling to risk their job.
Yet, even when incidents are reported, they tend not to be prioritized. In cases of sexual assault and rape, BAI found that women face societal and legal barriers when filing complaints. In their report, the organization stated that women are often greeted with reluctance by police officers when reporting abuses; often they must bribe officers in order for them to file complaints.
Current laws also make it difficult to report such abuses. Although rape was criminalized in 2005, the Government failed to specifically define consent. Therefore, marital rape is virtually non-existent before the eyes of the law as notions of consent remain embedded within traditional understandings of marriage.
Other barriers to filing complaints in instances of rape lies with the de facto requirement of a medical certificate. The Haitian government specifically notes that a medical certificate is not legally required in order to make a complaint; however judges tend to insist on the certificate in order to move forward with cases. This creates a number of issues for women and girls who must find a doctor who will be able to provide them with a detailed report. Often, doctors will not cite signs of physical aggression, which help prove force in rape cases. Moreover, because of limited mobility, women in rural areas often are not able to reach doctors who would provide required medical certificates.
Given all that has been said, it might seem as though the Haitian government has not made sufficient effort in promoting gender equality. However, this is not completely true. Laws have been drafted against gender-based violence, yet the current political crisis and other obstacles make it difficult to implement them. After a February 6 accord, Haiti now has a transitional government which has a mandate to create a new electoral council and hold elections by April 24, 2016. This makes it challenging to push legislation through parliament.
Yet, beyond politics, more needs to be done to transform the socio-cultural norms that favor patriarchy. An increase in campaigns that raise awareness on gender disparities, sexual harassment, and violence against women can be a great step in shifting the mindsets of the Haitian people.
As the Haitian proverb says. “Chita pa bay” or “Sitting does not yield”. Let’s use this International Women’s Day to remind the Haitian government to “Step it up” and make greater strides for women’s empowerment and gender equality.
Jasmine Noel is an intern for the Haiti Advocacy Working Group and graduate student at The George Washington University.