'She has not taken this risk for nothing'

Haiti… a place where the only successful slave revolt, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, took place; independence came in 1804; then the Duvalier years of fear and repression; Aristide’s first tenure; the violence of the military years; Aristide’s return; his kidnapping and forced departure by the United States in 2004; the thousands of refugees landing on the shores of Miami…

And, most recently, the horrendous events of 2010: from earthquakes and cholera to floods, fraudulent elections and the return of the brutal dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier, earlier this week.

Walking on Fire: Stories of Survival and Resistance from Haitian Women by Beverly Bell is a narrative of Haitian women’s lives. Lives of violence, courage, poverty, sisterhood, resistance and survival. The word ‘violence’ is used so often I feel I should explain what it means to me as a woman.

Violence exists at many levels and can take multiple forms. Violence is abuse of power; it is about humiliation and disrespect for people, their property, their environment, their right to life. Violence distorts our lives and causes chaos, panic and fear.

The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women defines violence against women as:

‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.’

However, to fully understand the impact of violence against women, we must listen to the definitions of violence of women themselves, rather than using a prescribed set of rules in judging whether violence has or has not taken place.

Violence against women does not happen in a socio-political vacuum. Rather, it is a reflection of the unequal relationship between women and other groups in a society. For example, within a militarized society such as Nigeria, violence perpetrated against the poor, who are seen as worthless, voiceless and invisible, by agents of the state who have total license to abuse without fear of retribution, does not need to be hidden. Acts of violence can be conducted in a public space to increase the humiliation of the victim and her community and also used to reaffirm the perpetrators’ power.

Nigeria, as well as other countries, is a representation of a culture of violence that is woven into the fabric of a society ruled by military dictators for 30 of its 40 years of independence. Colonial powers and multinational corporations have undoubtedly contributed to and facilitated the culture of violence in Haiti, Nigeria and other African states, but my focus here is on the implementers – the national governments.

My initial reading of Walking on Fire tells me that Haitian society is similar to the Nigeria’s in terms of violence being a reflection of social and gender relations. The acts of violence narrated by the women of Haiti in the book are awful and depraved. They range from gang rapes of women and children to murder, torture and slavery. They are acts of domestic violence, state violence and structural violence.

The latter is particularly pertinent as it relates to the status of women in a society. During my recent visit to Haiti I was told repeatedly that between 70 and 90 per cent of Haitian women were single parents solely responsible for their families. I was also told over and over again stories of rape of women, girls and children – a situation which got even worse after the earthquake which displaced so many people and forced them to live in unhealthy, overcrowded, insecure tented camps. This quote from Walking on Fire speaks of the responsibilities taken by women:

‘Women carry on their heads, their family, household economy, local economy, and culture. While women assert that they are the central pillar of society they are also quick to point out that they are the most marginalized within the marginalized class.’

From the stories, or istwa, as they are called in Creole, it is clear that, despite the hardship, the women’s stories are full of resistance, sisterhood and courage. Reading the testimonies you can feel the dignity and power behind the words put on paper.

The chapters are divided into six sections, each one focusing on a different type of approach to resistance: Resistance in Survival, Resistance as Expression, Resistance for Political and Economic Change, Resistance for Gender Justice, Resistance Transforming Power and Resistance as Solidarity.

Acts of resistance are the ways in which women endure and survive the oppression and madness that fills their daily lives on a personal level, as well as formal acts of resistance through organizing and collective action. In each of the six sections women tell us the herstories of their lives, the violence they suffered – be it rape, beatings, being on the run from the Macoute of the Duvalier regimes, or the FRAPH (Front for the Advancement and Progess of Haiti) death squads – and organizing politically against all odds, demonstrating for women’s and human rights or the daily search for food for their children to avoid starvation.

As the author states in the final chapter, the message in these stories is for us to ‘read it and act’ and come together in solidarity with the Haitian women, learning and building on their and our own strength and resilience.

Messages from Haiti. Photo by B. S. Wise under a Creative Commons license.

‘Eliva [one of the witnesses quoted in the book] has increased the peril to her own life by telling us her story. But she has not taken this risk for nothing; she is asking us for something in return. She is asking us to take a stand, as she has. She is asking us to speak out, as she has. She is asking us to take risks, as she has.’ Medea Benjamin, US political activist

Walking on Fire: Stories of Survival and Resistance from Haitian Women by Beverly Bell with a forward by Haitian writer, Edwidge Danticat, Cornell University Press, 2001.

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