Interviewed by Beverly Bell, Edited by Jessica Hsu
April 22, 2014
Kettly Alexandre of the Peasant Movement of Papay Women's Committee. Photo: Beverly Bell
The Peasant Movement of Papay (MPP) is one of the largest small-farmer associations in Haiti with 70,000 members, of whom close to half are women. MPP was founded in 1973 to improve the living conditions of small farmers while working for social and economic justice. Here, Kettly Alexandre of the MPP Women’s Committee speaks to advances made over 40 years for women’s rights, equity, and an end to violence.
Even though the road has been long, we are seeing successes. We are leading a huge battle and hoping for victory. Our approach in the Women’s Committee is to meet problems head-on to promote social justice - combating violence against women, advocating for gender equity, providing scholarships for women, promoting reforestation, and working for personal health. Our programs allow women to lift up their heads, and give peasants a viable future.
One of our largest programs is a safe house for women who’ve been victims of violence. We’re the only group in the Central Plateau that offers women a supervised safe house, which also includes medical assistance or referrals, psychological support groups, and legal support. We have organizers in different zones, and if they hear of an instance of violence against a woman, they identify the victim and send them to our centers. All victims are welcome.
One of the most personally satisfying stories involves a woman who was being beaten by her husband. She told him if he didn’t stop, she was going to go tell MPP. He stopped immediately.
Although many people say the violence is on the rise in the Central Plateau, it is not true. What’s changing is that more and more people are standing up and denouncing the violence that has always been present. Not very long ago, it was hard to find people to speak out against this type of violence. Often even the peasant women who are the victims of rape, beatings, etc. feel ashamed [to say anything].
Prior to the earthquake, our legal support helped women in about 50 court cases. Following the earthquake, we’ve been able to help almost 300 cases, with the assistance of a Canadian organization that helped train more women to support victims of violence. Of those 300, there’ve been about 100 rulings handed down; close to 50 men found guilty, with the women being compensated; and many others awaiting judgment behind bars. These are victories for women. It’s encouraging.
We sponsor radio broadcasts concerning violence against women. We also hold workshops with leaders of the community, including houngans [vodou priests], pastors, and priests, to build awareness around the problem so they can in turn make others aware. We invite police officers, judges and lawyers. Their reactions are all over the place. Some say, “Aha! You’re the ones who are making women think they have all this power!” But for every negative reaction, we see more positive reactions. These efforts have made it easier for women to come to our offices, report and act.
But even though we’re working diligently and have taken big strides in making the population aware of violence against women and its consequences, the authorities need to be involved. If we really want to eradicate the problem, it needs to be dealt with on a national level.
We also do a lot of advocacy that involves both men and women, not just in the area of violence against women, but also for gender equity and women’s rights. There’s a lot of respect for women in MPP. We involve a lot of people in discussions around these issues.
One of our biggest successes is that peasant women are no longer ashamed to identify as peasant woman. We’re putting value in our culture and saying proudly that we are farmers and producers.
MPP also works with women in our [economic support] programs because we understand that the women who suffer the most are usually those in precarious economic situations. Respect is frequently related to one’s access to personal means, so when we give women who have suffered violence a house, a cow, a goat, or a kitchen garden, we strengthen their capacity.
Giving a kitchen garden to a woman is a unique initiative of MPP. It targets not only women who are victims of violence, but women who don’t have male partners. We make planters out of used tires, and we might give a peasant woman 10 used tires. You put manure, compost, etc., inside to create soil without the use of chemicals. Then, you can plant vegetables right inside the tires - peppers, cabbage, leeks, everything. Just imagine! There are families with up to 15 planters who’ve become self-sufficient when it comes to vegetables in their diets, and who’re able to sell the surplus at local markets. MPP has created more than 9,000 kitchen gardens in the Central Plateau.
One thing that always satisfies me is when a peasant says, “Thank you, with the kitchen garden and the goats you gave me, I raised enough money to send my kids to school.”
Twenty years ago, you couldn’t find one woman in this organization that could read or write. As a result of our scholarship program, 100 percent of the administrative positions in the organization are held by women.
Beyond MPP members, we offer scholarships to women in the community who wouldn’t otherwise have the means to attend university. MPP helps pay for their studies abroad in places like Mexico, Cuba, or the Dominican Republic. The beautiful thing is that once they complete their studies, these women return to support their communities.
If we want to continue to advance in these social struggles, we’ll need to come together and gain political power. There are victories we are seeking that can’t be won without that power.
Many thanks to Nathan Wendte for translating the interview.