Solidarity Visit to Haiti: 19 December 2011

Wednesday, December 21 2011

kiosqueJacmel is a city in the southeast region of Haiti. A tourist site on the Caribbean Sea, with family links to former Canadian Governor-General the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, it is among the areas in Haiti hardest hit by the January 2010 earthquake. On their journey from Port-au-Prince, the Canadian visitors again had opportunity to see the brutal effects of deforestation on the mountainsides. Trees have been cut extensively to make charcoal for heating and cooking. The torrential rainy seasons have washed away the topsoil in many places, leaving exposed rock, gravel and a pervasive white dust that at night can reduce visibility on roads in places to zero.

Jacmel is the home of “Fanm Deside” (“Decided Women”), a local group of women who decided (“deside” in Creole) to change conditions for women, and to work in collaboration with other groups to transform their country and society. Development and Peace has contributed $250,000 over two years to assist Fanm Deside, in part for the construction of a shelter for women and children seeking protection from domestic violence.

‘Fanm Deside’

When arriving in Jacmel late Sunday afternoon, the Canadian delegation was first received by 10 women from Fanm Deside, and later by the Vicar General of the Diocese of Jacmel. Founded in 1989 by the Sisters of Notre Dame du Bon Conseil (“Our Lady of Good Counsel”) from Montreal, the movement began with 13 women and now has more than 800 members in five different groups. They provide formation in health, human dignity and human rights, especially for women and children, but also for men; protect women and children from violence; mobilize community economic projects; and lobby on behalf of women and children. The Canadian visitors were met in a pagoda decorated with white ribbons and pink bows, and invited to sit at a small table with an embroidered tablecloth and fresh flowers.

“Bienvenue chez nous,” the women sang. “Welcome to our place.” Each gave a short presentation. The coordinator, Mrs. Marie-Ange Noël, said that “We are grateful to the Bishops of Canada who through Development and Peace have defended the rights of women in Haiti.”

The women explained that more than half the families in Haiti involve single parents or men with several sexual partners. Difficult economic conditions are a major source of frustration and violence. Youth become not only victims of violence, but also perpetrators. Since the earthquake, problems of violence have increased, particularly as the camps for the homeless often provide little security. Economic development is a major part of the solution, they explained. It provides women with self-esteem and gains them respect from men and other women, while also helping them feed and educate their families. The projects include nurseries and micro-credit as well as raising pigs and chickens, all assisted in part by the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace. “You are so courageous,” Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the women. The session ended with the women singing a song of benediction, and asking a blessing from Archbishop Smith.

The Canadian delegation also had a brief meeting with three leaders of JACHA, a group of 400 youths in 14 teams who are involved in public health protection against cholera and rabies, disaster preparation, and reforestation. They have mobilized 12,000 youth from the ages of 15 to 25 years old. “Your dedication and the sacrifices you make for others are extraordinary,” Archbishop Smith said to the two young men and one young woman. “You are creating the basis for change. You are people of vision.” Development and Peace has contributed $200,000 over three years to assist JACHA in its reforestation projects.

Diocesan Vicar General

From there the visitors went to meet the Vicar General, Father Théodule Domond, who had been the diocesan administrator before the recent appointment of the new Bishop, and is now director of the diocesan centre for pastoral formation. He has supported Fanm Deside since its beginnings, and as Diocesan Administrator had inaugurated its new offices. Although Fanm Deside is not directly linked to the diocese, the relationship is good, he said, with most members of the movement strong Catholics. He noted the group also has links with religious communities of women. “In Haiti, women, especially mothers, are the pillars of society and the family,” he said. “Most of the women in Fanm Deside are mothers who have done so much with so few resources.”

When asked about some commentators in Canada who say women’s groups such as Fanm Deside are radical critics of Church teaching, he said this was certainly not true in the southeast region of Haiti, adding he did not know any women in the movement who were critical of the Church or its teachings. At the same time, he said, there can be individuals or currents in any association that do not reflect its basic principles and objectives. “The same is also true for the Church itself,” he added. “There are Catholics and even homilists who criticize everything about women’s issues, even though these critics do not reflect what is the teaching of the Church.”

Archbishop Smith inquired about the situation in the Jacmel camps which shelter the homeless since the earthquake. Father Domond said that 5,000 people in the immediate region had been left without homes, and many churches, chapels and religious houses destroyed. Although the number living in tents has now been reduced to about 600 families, the situation remains precarious, he explained. A great deal of money was invested in purchasing what are basically plastic tents, he lamented, susceptible to damage from winds and fire, very hot in the heat and very cold when the temperatures are low. “Little has been done to date in the way of durable housing,” he said. He insisted the people themselves need to be involved in providing their own shelter. They have to be able to take matters into their own hands, he said, while at the same time needing support so as to find the means to build permanent housing.

Shelter for women and children

magalieThe next morning, 19 December, the Canadian delegation visited the shelter that Fanm Deside is constructing to help respond to situations of family violence. The two-storey facility will eventually give temporary shelter to 20 women and children. About a dozen men were at work constructing the concrete house in a lovely walled garden. The stone wall was being constructed by hand, just as the cement to construct the residence was also being mixed by hand and carried pail by pail. This is the first shelter for women in the southeast area of Haiti, and one of only a few in the whole country. Archbishop Smith blessed the construction. When completed it will be named the “Centre Magalie pour la vie” (the Magalie Centre for Life), named after a local woman who had defended others from violence and who died in the earthquake.

pepiniereThe solidarity mission next visited two nurseries, staffed and operated by women as a means to learn new life skills, gain a degree of financial security to help themselves as well as to educate and feed their families, and build a sense of community. The seedling trees and vegetables assist other families and provide lessons in water and soil conservation. At one nursery, women carried water in plastic pails and recycled plastic containers over 20 metres to water the seedlings; in the second, just going to the little river nearby was a 10-minute walk. Both nurseries were a paradise of greenery, with birds singing and butterflies flitting. “Solidarity is the basis of all,” one woman said. The women dream of slowly changing the whole nation, which today is dependent on imported food. Thirty years ago, Haiti produced its own rice; today it imports rice from California. Fanm Deside have five nurseries in all. Each produces 10,000 seedlings a year. The women range from 18 to 80 years old.

“We are so touched that those in Canada who invested in our projects have sent representatives to see our work,” one woman said. “Women are like a reed, flexible but enduring,” they sang. Their second song was “Man and woman alone are sad; together they build a society.”  “Merry Christmas,” the Canadian visitors called out. One woman replied, “I wish the same to you, because Christmas is for everyone.” The solidarity visitors thought of the Holy Family, and how God created man and woman equal in dignity.

Archbishop Smith and Archbishop Durocher are accompanied on their solidarity visit to Haiti by Development and Peace Executive Director Mr. Michael Casey, its Latin America and Caribbean Programs Officer Mr. Normand Comte, and its communications officer Mr. François Gloutnay, as well as CCCB Assistant General Secretary Mr. Bede Hubbard.

By Bede Hubbard
Assistant General Secretary
Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops