“As activists, we commemorate this as a day of struggle, a day to make our voices heard until someone pays attention and helps provide solutions to our problems.” Facing the Haitian parliament with a throng of banner-waving and singing women at her back, Rachelle Fondechaine of Women Fighting for the Development of Haiti continued, “Today is March 8th! It’s a day when women workers in New York first took to the streets in to demand their rights in 1857. This day is marked in our memories, and as women in Haiti, we have no support, we are left in the street, our children don’t have access to school…”
Hours earlier, hundreds of women converged in front of the Ministry for the Status and Condition of Women and, dancing to the rhythm of an all-women street band, wove their way through the streets of downtown Port-au-Prince to the Haitian parliament. Supported by more than a dozen local human rights organizations and activist groups, protesters’ demands ranged widely from prosecution of former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, to better conditions in factories, to UN accountability for cholera and sexual violence.
Women head nearly half of Haitian households and account for most of the country’s subsistence farmers. As traditional caretakers of children, the elderly and the sick, the burden on women has increased since the January 2010 earthquake. In displacement camps, where nearly 500,000 still live, women continue to face alarming rates of rape and gender-based violence. A recent report from Gender Action reveals that post-earthquake investments in Haiti have largely neglected issues of gender equality.
But over the years, Haitian women’s groups have made important gains including legal equality for women within marriage and the criminalization of rape. Significant legislation is currently being drafted to provide increased protection from gender-based violence. And this year, on Women’s Day, protesters reminded onlookers of their power, singing, “Women, we are reeds. You can cut off our heads, you can burn our roots, but when it rains, we will grow again.”