Photo caption: Women dominated the three-mile May Day March to Parliament in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2012. Photo credit: Meena Jagannath.
When I stepped off the plane in Port-au-Prince last month, I was surprised to feel a strong sense of homecoming. It was strange because I’d felt the greater part of my time in Haiti was spent struggling with my surroundings and coming to terms with my status as “blan” (foreigner), and yet I entered the chaos of Port-au-Prince with a warm familiarity – chatting with the street vendors I had passed daily on the way to work, jumping on the “tap tap” cab I used to take to work everyday, running into old colleagues in the street. This was a rhythm I understand better than the still-new rumblings of Miami, where I now live.
While living abroad, it is hard to discern exactly how a place changes you, and how you gradually mold your life to fit the contours of a new country, swinging to a different tune. So it isn’t until you return to the U.S. that you feel a sense of dislocation, as you try to remember the way the old songs used to go. I couldn’t help but feel during this most recent trip that perhaps I shouldn’t have left Haiti just as I was hitting my stride both with my work and personally, finally having settled into my life there. I had built strong relationships with my clients, developed great working relationships with my Haitian colleagues at the office, and my Haitian Kreyòl was just where it needed to be to connect with clients and their families. From the moment I set foot back in the office of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), I was back to seeing clients like I used to, without skipping a beat. It was as though over four months hadn’t passed since I left last September.
For almost a year and a half, I helped coordinate the Rape Accountability and Prevention Project (RAPP), a project launched at the Port-au-Prince-based human rights law office Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) in the months following the January 12, 2010 earthquake in response to alarming levels of sexual violence in Port-au-Prince’s tent camps. The project combines direct legal representation with capacity-building for grassroots women’s groups and advocacy at the international and national levels.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, several legal fellows traveled down to Haiti to reinforce the BAI’s response to earthquake-related human rights issues, including housing rights for the displaced and gender-based violence. By the time I arrived in May 2011, things were already in full swing, and I had to quickly scramble to learn the ropes.
Over the months, I got to know numerous strong, vocal and truly dedicated women, working hard for respect for women’s rights and an end to gender-based violence. I remember in particular Port-au-Prince’s May Day parade last year, which was planned to be a three-plus mile march to the Parliament building. A group of women from the Rezo Fanm BAI (BAI Women’s Network) – a network comprised of a number of grassroots women’s groups — came out to join in the march.
Between the sun and the long route, I was hurting, shuffling through towards the end of the march. I was just about ready to faint as we reached the Parliament when, to my surprise, I see one elderly woman advocate suddenly break into dance and belt out a chant for the minimum wage to be raised to 200 gourdes a day from 150 (the rate at the time equal to less than $4 a day). Now that’s an activist. I can tell you these young legs of mine were in no position to do that!
For me, my work in Haiti and elsewhere is strongly grounded in the sense that our role as international human rights lawyers is to reinforce local capacity and provide access to international forums to which the grassroots groups wouldn’t otherwise have. The process is slow and challenging, as there is a delicate balance to be struck between respecting the directions and initiatives of local movements and aligning those struggles with the human rights framework. This is all the more complicated by cultural and language barriers, which slow the pace at which right trainings and awareness-raising campaigns can be turned into effective practice.
This last trip to Haiti was in part motivated by a recent workshop held by human rights organizations MADRE and the Commission of Women Victims for Victims (KOFAVIV). This was a discussion of implementation strategies for Haiti’s reformed penal code, which include numerous provisions de-criminalizing abortion in situations of rape, incest and danger to the health of the mother and providing for punishment of gender-based violence crimes like sexual harassment for the first time ever. After having had the opportunity to give feedback into these provisions, it was an exciting time for me to see it begin to be unrolled to the public.
This is an historic moment for Haiti and the women’s movement, whose advocates have redoubled efforts since the earthquake to put pressure on the government to more adequately protect women from the threat of violence. It is also a great opportunity for lawyers who have broken ground over the past year in winning convictions for perpetrators of rape while advocating for women’s rights in the courtroom to have more tools to win justice for their clients where justice is elusive.
It is amazing, and in some ways I feel that I have been more involved and invested in this effort than I had ever been in the U.S.
But it is hard to measure the true impact – both positive and negative – of one’s work in another country, and it’s important to be honest about the fact that it can’t all be good. There is something unsettling, for example, about the fact that I am helping to influence laws that do not apply to me, that don’t affect the society in which I live. And so I am at peace with my departure, despite the fact that I sometimes feel more out of place back in the U.S. practicing on a local level after doing international work for so many years. The rich relationships I’ve built, the stories I have collected and most definitely my Haitian Kreyòl skills will always be with me, impacting my work wherever I am.
For more information or to support the RAPP project, please visit: http://ijdh.org/projects/rapp.