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Women’s fight for equality in Haiti (1934-2015): feminism or isolated activism

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A few years ago, while in an academic discussion with someone about feminism in Haiti he said that in the case of Haiti, the fight for equality between men and women since 1934 consisted solely of small initiatives by small groups of women, based around small projects generally under the recommendation of local and/or international NGOs, in areas relating to immediate needs such as housing, food and health assistance for women, etc.

This is something I kept thinking about for a while, and today I am sharing my perception. So the present document is my answer to the following question: can we consider the women’s fight for equality in Haiti from 1934 to 2015 as feminism or isolated social activism?

An important discussion to have

The recognition of the dignity of every human being in the organization of society for the safety of all has become increasingly important in our societies. It is even enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an instrument to which the majority of the world’s States agreed.

This same Declaration enshrines the idea that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. And that everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in the […] declaration, without distinction of any kind, in particular […] as to sex […] (United Nations, 1948). This is a proof of the determination of the world to promote equality between everyone in terms of dignity, rights and freedoms, hence the consecration of gender equality.

The fight for equality between men and women has been waged all over the world: in Europe, the United States, Africa, and Haiti. We’ll focus on Haiti. The literature on the subject recognizes 1934 as the year of the first major revelations of a desire, at least for some women, to see society grant them the same recognition as men (Mahotière, 2008).

With that being said, it is appropriate to justify our preference for limiting ourselves to Haiti: this choice stems from a need to contribute to reflection on the question of whether the fight for equality between men and women so far waged in Haiti can be described as feminist movements. Indeed, despite the importance given to the actions led by women and for women in Haiti, the difficulty arises of knowing whether to speak of isolated actions by women or feminist movements. This leads to the following question: between 1934 and 2015, can we say that the fights led by women in Haiti constituted feminist movements or negligible actions claiming to defend women?

As we develop, we’ll be interested in answering these two questions. To achieve this, our approach will be to compare the characteristics of the fights for equality between me and women in Haiti, to the specificities of some classic definitions of feminist movements.

What is a feminist movement?

In this first part, we’re going to develop the meaning of the feminist movement and, based on that, see under what conditions we can consider a social movement as feminist or not.

What is a feminist movement?

This is a preliminary question, the answer to which will help us in our conclusions. For reasons of method, we can break it down into two further questions. The first one: what is a movement? The second one: what makes a feminist movement? Indeed, it is the dialectical conclusion around the answers to these two questions that will provide the answer to the main question.

What is a (social) movement?

If you ask a historian what he considers a social movement to be, he might tend to see it as an event resulting from historical causes. For him, it would be a series of consequently linked actions, guided by ideals and whose main objective is to guarantee (preserve or modify in the long term) a distribution of privileges. But there’s more to it than the historical definition.

While the historian takes an “evolutionary approach” to his definition, the sociologist may prefer to focus on mobilization mechanisms, the sources of which are immediate social conditions. It is clear, then, that there is a wide variety of definitions that can be attributed to the concept of social movement. In this sense, the definition we will retain is as follows: a form of collective action (petitions, hunger strikes, publicized demonstrations, etc.) through which demands are expressed (partial or total questioning of the social order) and, in some cases, the adversary against whom the struggle is waged is identified, like Alain Touraine would suggest.

So, a social movement presupposes a project for society, under which certain changes become essential. It manifests itself through solidarity between its members. It’s a mobilizing force.

It goes without saying that there is no such thing as one social movement, but rather a number of different ones. Thus, the notion of a “workers’ movement” does not refer to the same thing as the notions of a “student movement” or an “ecological movement”, to name just a few. The same consideration applies to the notion of “feminist movement”, which differs from the other forms of social movements.

Feminist?

The qualifier “feminist” used here refers to anything related to feminism. Feminism can be considered as the attitude of militating for an improvement and/or extension of the role and rights of women in society. So to call something feminist is to say that it refers to the activism in favor of better and more important roles and rights for women.

A feminist movement

What about the feminist movement then? On this subject, the least we can say, given the above considerations, is that a feminist movement is a social movement whose specificity lies in the fact that its preoccupation remains women in their conditions of existence. Moreover, given that there is not just one feminism, but several (and that the claims made by so-called feminists differ considerably from one another), it is difficult to find a general definition of a feminist movement.

One of the first uses of the notion of feminism was by Alexandre Dumas Fils (Dumas, 1872). This proves the existence of the first steps towards women’s social and political rights demands as early as the end of the 19th century, particularly in France. During this period, known as the first wave of feminism, which succeeded to the pre-feminism, the aim has been the legal egalitarianism between men and women, including the right for women to vote and stand for election, if we refer to the The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen written 81 years before.

The early 1960s saw the second wave. The movement  took a new turn with at first provocative mobilizations, aimed at attracting media attention, and then the theorization of the female condition.

The appearance of the terms “sexism” and “patriarchy” in this period is a proof of the attempt to interpret the social system through the lenses of women’s oppression and domination, and effectively to overthrow it by establishing a new type of relationship between men and women. Women in this wave constantly demanded the right to abortion and contraception, the recognition of other lifestyles (such as celibacy, cohabitation and lesbianism).

During that time, some men thought their relationship with women should be considered a personal matter, not to be questionable and many feminists believe that this evocation of the personal [sphere was just] politica] (Hanisch, 1969). The third wave brought with it a globalization of the integration of women as agents of development, to whom priority is given.

The third wave brought with it a globalization of the integration of women as agents of development, to whom priority is given.

Each wave brought its specific demands, albeit always aimed at improving the status of women. In the same logic, Louise Toupin asserts in “Les courants de pensée féministe” that there are no general theories of feminism (Toupin, 1998). For her, the divergence of opinions on feminism arose from two major questions: (1) How to explain this subordinate place of women, and (2) How to change this situation?

According to Toupin, it’s the different answers to these questions that create plurality and diversity in feminism (hence several feminist currents), and consequently oblige us today to speak of feminist movements rather than the feminist movement.

In “Les termes du débat féministe (Van Enis, 2010), we can note that there are five (5) different feminisms, both in terms of what he calls the main causes of oppression or problems and in terms of the strategies put in place by each of them:

TypesProblemsStrategies
Liberal feminismUnjust laws, backward mindsets, values, and stereotypes.Believe in the perfectibility of the system and readjust it with reforms, and a new way to socialize children.
Marxist/socialist feminismThe capitalist system exploits women and men, which results in patriarchy.Abolish class-divided capitalist society.
Radical feminismThe patriarchy. And men are seen as a “sexual class” with their power.Overthrow patriarchy. Women reclaim their bodies. Creation of exclusively feminine spaces. Protest against pornography, beauty contests, and forced marriages.
Eco-feminismThe links between ecological destruction and violence against womenDevelops more political tendencies and more spiritual questionings, including on the cosmic essence of femininity. Alliances with women in other countries engaged in the fight against dangerous exploitation of natural resources.
Post-feminismNo common condition of women’s oppression. No feminine nature either (e.g. the Queer).Efforts to keep the movement non-politicized. Priority is given to individual freedom and the interchangeability of values (e.g. the fight to legalize prostitution).
Table of different types of feminism

If we cannot dare give a general definition of the feminist movement, we can nevertheless adopt one that at least serves the needs of our reflection. Thus, we believe that feminist movements are social movements motivated by the improvement of all female human beings legal and real rights, in a perspective of equality with all other human beings. As such, they take the form of a series of coordinated protests and other actions aimed not only at challenging poor living conditions, but also at showing solidarity and, above all, demanding changes that will benefit the female human beings.

Feminist movements question social and power relations between the sexes, while denouncing the hierarchical organization of roles that often benefits the male sex. They also question the patriarchal basis of the social order and engage in the fight for women’s social, political and financial emancipation. To complete the picture, we can say like Louise Toupin that a feminist movement is: “An awareness first individual, then […] collective, followed by a revolt against the arrangement of sex relations and the subordinate position women occupy in them in a given society, at a given moment in its history. [A] struggle to change these relationships and this situation” (Toupin, 1998). 

What about isolated social activism?

To put it simply, the idea of isolated women’s actions implies mere conjunctural actions carried out with the restrictive aim of pushing through a momentary claim of some kind, which very often doesn’t fit into any valid plan or program. So, to reiterate our main question, what was the situation with the struggle for equality in Haiti from 1934 to 2015? An overview of the history of the actions for equality between men and women can help us see a little more clearly.

Characteristics of the women fight for equality in Haiti

For Evandro Bonfim, the desire for freedom that led to the independence of Haiti in 1804 is in itself an ancestor of the women’s fight for equality in Haiti (Bonfim, 2004). However, if the demand for dignity has led to the revolution resulting in the birth of Haiti, the question of women’s status was not necessarily taken into account from the very beginning. For Myryam Merlet, the legislation in Haiti has ignored women since the formation of the State (Bonfim, 2004). 

But, in 1934, Madeleine Sylvain Bouchereau founded the Ligue féminine d’action sociale (LFAS), which marked the beginning of the first era in the fight for equality that would last until 1964.

Around 1964, the fight for equality in Haiti was to experience another turning point in its history because of the Duvalier dictatorship which led to the virtual annihilation of women’s fight for equality in Haiti.

It was not until the end of the dictatorship in 1987 that the women’s struggle for equality resurfaced. This reappearance in the first half of 1987 marked a second era in the women’s struggle for equality in Haiti. Associations such as “Kay fanm”, “SOFA” and “Enfo-femme” were key players in this era.

A third era, that of the year 2000, is marked by denunciations of violence against women. “Fanm yo la” and “Femme en démocratie” are important associations of the third era.

Over the long term, Haitian women have structured their struggles around the project of changing the social structure to make it more favorable to the respect of women’s rights, in particular by demanding the right to vote and to stand for election, especially in the early days.

From it’s creation, the Ligue d’Action Sociale undertook actions such as:

  • The efforts to raise awareness through conferences and civic education for women;
  • The organization of evening classes for female workers;
  • The creation of a credit union, and libraries;
  • The opening of a workers’ hostel;
  • The submission of petitions to the authorities in favor of increasing the number of girls’ schools, and demanding equal pay for equal work.

The work carried out at that time does not appear to have been in vain, as “Haitian women between 1957 and 1958 eventually won the right to vote on the same basis as men, […] the construction of a lycée for little girls, [and the right] to attend university” (Moise, 1997). 

We must not forget the very important decision to publish a Decree (The Decree giving married women a constitutionally-compliant status and eliminating all forms of discrimination against them, 1982) on the status of married women, which eliminates all forms of discrimination against it. Through a Negotiating Committee with the Members of Parliament of the 46th legislature (Joachim, 2012), lobbying was carried out for the ratification in Haiti of the Belém do Pará Convention on the prevention, punishment, and eradication of violence against women.

As we have just seen in our historical overview, from 1934 onwards, we can distinguish three main eras, which are marked by their own particularities. But as a whole, these efforts seem to have given priority to equality between males and females. This is explained by the focus of the actions undertaken. Haitian women, starting from 1934 have become more aware of their situation, and for some years now, the recognition of women’s dignity, rights and freedom has no longer been an essential issue.

There still is work to do, but some would say there has been progress, to the point where now in 2024, meaning 90 years later the fight for equality between men and women in Haiti have even succeeded in making the integration of women a priority. This integration is even a constitutional obligation, because as it’s mentioned in the amended 1987 Haitian Constitution “The principle of a quota of at least thirty percent (30%) for women is recognized at all levels of national life, particularly in the public services”.

Finally…

All in all, we must consider that the struggles waged by women in Haiti between 1934 and 2015 were not some random, isolated, or unsuccessful actions by women. They were carried out to bring change and improve the condition of women in Haiti.

Even if we can acknowledge the possible existence, during this period, of small women’s groups fighting for the realization of small development projects without any truly feminist pretensions, the historical facts we have just noted along this document have shown us that from 1934 onwards, the fight for equality between men and women in Haiti was an organized movement that protested against the hierarchical organization of the haitian society in which women were not necessarily treated equal to men.

Actions were undertaken to favor the socio-political and economic emancipation of women, and these actions have a political dimension. Nevertheless, it’s important to bear in mind that there are still plenty of gaps to be filled, and plenty of roads to be traveled, if we are to achieve full equality between men and women in Haitian society. As an example we have to make sure that feminism in Haiti does serve as a set of activities through which “influential leaders exploit women’s misery to settle their personal affairs” (Predestin, 2007).

We can conclude by saying that just like the Ministry for Women’s Affairs and Women’s Rights has mentioned it, there are challenges to overcome tree kind of challenges: the harmonization of legal texts, the promulgation of new legal texts, and the reform of the judiciary itself to make it more capable of providing impartial justice to all and respecting laws and conventions on women’s rights. (Ministry for Women’s Affairs and Women’s Rights, 2006)

Sources 

Bonfim, E. (2004). Haitian women, guardian of the country’s libertarian tradition (translated by Anne Vereecken for the Network of Information and Solidarity with Latin America/RISAL).

Dumas, A. (1872). L’Homme-Femme: Réponse à M. Henri d’Ideville (In Oeuvres complètes d’Alexandres Dumas Fils) (24th ed.). Michel Lévy Frères.

Hanisch, C. (1969). The Personal Is Political: The original feminist theory paper at the author’s web site. Carol Hanisch of the Women’s Liberation Movement. https://www.carolhanisch.org/CHwritings/PIP.html

Joachim, M. F. (2012). Haïti-Féminisme: Quand fleurissent les lilas. https://www.alterpresse.org/spip.php?article13878

Mahotière, C. (2008). Luttes féministes en Haiti: Études exploratoire des enjeux culturels, motivations et projets qui sous-tendent l’engagement féministe [Master’s dissertation, Université Laval]. https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/thesescanada/vol1/QQLA/TC-QQLA-25789.pdf

Ministry for Women’s Affairs and Women’s Rights. (2006). Eléments de la Condition et des Situations des Femmes en Haïti. Ministry for Women’s Affairs and Women’s Rights.

Moise, C. (1997). L’évolution du droit de la femme à travers l’histoire constitutionnelle d’Haïti de 1804 à 1987, Actes du colloque Internationale MICIVIH-PNUD. MICIVIH-PNUD.

Predestin, J. M.-A. (2007). The situation of women in Haiti in relation to national and international instruments [Master’s dissertation, University of Nantes]. https://www.memoireonline.com/02/08/955/situation-femme-haiti-instruments-nationaux-internationaux.html

The Decree giving married women a constitutionally-compliant status and eliminating all forms of discrimination against them, 75 (1982).

Toupin, L. (1998). Les courants de pensée féministe. J.-M. Tremblay, 2003. In the collection “Les classiques des sciences sociales.” http://classiques.uqac.ca/contemporains/toupin_louise/courants_pensee_feministe/courants_pensee.html

United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations; United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

Van Enis, N. (2010). Les termes du débat féministe. Barricade, 31.

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David Celestin
David Celestin

David Celestin is a diplomat turned creator and entrepreneur. David Celestin holds bachelor's degrees in Law, Philosophy & Political Science. He also holds a Master's degree in Management, has been a diplomat for over 7 years, and is now an entrepreneur and a content creator. Sharing his life lessons. Book your free business consultation

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