Haiti Must Center Women in Its Transition to Succeed

Sasha Filippova is the Senior Staff Attorney for the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). IJDH is a U.S.-based human rights non-profit organization established in 2004 to tackle the root causes of injustice that impacts basic human rights in Haiti. In partnership with its Haiti-based sister organization, the law firm Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), IJDH advocates, litigates, builds constituencies, and nurtures networks to create systemic pathways to justice for marginalized communities in Haiti.

Haiti is in a moment of transition in the midst of what remains a catastrophic crisis. There is a real possibility of transformation towards a rights-based democracy and the rebuilding of Haiti’s social compact. But women and girls are being left out. And that is not simply an unjust violation of rights for 52 percent of Haiti’s population. It is also a short-sighted weakening of the transition process and its outcomes. Haiti’s women and girls are demanding better and must be fully empowered to participate in Haiti’s transition.

The most recent Update on Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Haiti published by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) earlier this month documents Haiti’s ongoing complex crisis whose humanitarian dimensions grow ever worse. Over 1,660 people have been killed since January, over 578,000 are internally displaced, and kidnappings remain rampant. Socio-economic indicators continue to plummet. At least 4.97 million Haitians are acutely food insecure; more than half the population is without adequate safe water and sanitation; and access to critical functions like medical care, education, and livelihoods is severely curtailed by the violence. Government officials, including police, continue to collude with armed groups and remain implicated in corruption. As a consequence and in combination with scarce resources, Haiti’s police are weak and largely ineffective.

The crisis has distinct impacts on women and girls that further reflect historic structural inequality and discrimination. Gender-based violence against women and girls has always been widespread in Haiti, enabled by permissive attitudes, discrimination, and economic dependence. With the crisis, gendered violence has reached unprecedented levels and is being used as a deliberate tool for controlling and punishing civilians. Armed groups target women and girls for sexual violence that includes collective rape, mutilation, and public humiliation. A 2023 survey found that more than one in three women and girls surveyed in three worst-affected Port-au-Prince neighborhoods had been raped. Pervasive under-reporting and deteriorating conditions indicate that the high rates of sexual violence reported by service providers are still undercounting the true impact. Women and children are also the majority of those displaced by the crisis. Government protections and services are virtually nonexistent and the near-collapse of medical care is driving up pregnancy-related complications and deaths. Underlying and shaping some of these gendered harms is the historic discrimination against women and girls in Haiti, which has limited their opportunities in public and private life; exposed them to gendered violence; and left them largely without recourse. Unaddressed political violence and under-resourcing of women-focused advocacy have exacerbated these patterns.

Notwithstanding these challenging metrics, this is also a moment of hope. Haitian civil society has long been demanding a rupture with past abuses and a transition towards democratic government grounded in human rights. For a long time, those efforts were blocked by political actors willing to deploy armed groups to suppress dissent who were able to stay in power through foreign backing from countries like the United States. But in March, de facto Prime Minister Henry lost international support that had installed and kept him in power even as his illegitimate regime presided over Haiti’s descent into acute crisis. And a Transitional Presidential Council (TPC) took over.

The TPC is tasked with implementing a political Agreement designed to pave a path to elections and rights-based government, to address insecurity in a way that centers Haitian sovereignty, and to foster justice and accountability. There is concern that the transitional process has already damaged its credibility through bad-faith conduct and may be re-entrenching the same patterns of state capture and foreign interference that precipitated Haiti’s crisis in the first place. Still, many Haitians see a genuine opportunity for transition to democracy and stability. Indeed, Haitian civil society has already successfully leveraged the available transitional mechanisms to constrain some of the worst offenses.

But women have largely been excluded from decision-making in the transition and women-specific considerations appear to be afterthoughts. And this is a major failure that must be urgently addressed.

Only one of the TPC’s nine members is a woman, and she is one of two “observers” without a vote. Such token inclusion is not just appalling, it is a violation of Haiti’s Constitution, which guarantees to women equality of participation “in the grand decisions engaging the national life” and “representation in the instances of power and of decision.” In response to chronic failures to respect these rights, the Constitution was further amended to explicitly require 30 percent participation by women in all public offices. And yet only male candidates were interviewed for the position of interim Prime Minister.

Fourteen human rights and feminist organizations in Haiti and the United States – including the IJDH – called out the exclusions as “beyond outrageous.” They further emphasized that “[t]here must be a real priority placed on ensuring that those who are empowered to shape the transition – male or female – are actually dedicated to advancing and protecting women’s rights and not just their appearance.” Best practices for resolving and rebuilding from conflict embodied by the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda affirm this position. A series of UN Security Council Resolutions and related assessments recognize that transitions are more successful and stable where women are involved in decision-making and where women-specific concerns, including addressing gender-based violence, are central to transitional policies and reconstruction. And, as elsewhere in the world, Haiti’s women have long demonstrated why. In the present crisis, Haitian women’s organizations are among the few service providers for survivors of sexual violence in spite of grave personal risks. Female food sellers called Madan Sara persevere in supplying food. And historically, women have been central to effective crisis response and management. Those are precisely the skills and perspectives that the transition needs to succeed. It is also noteworthy that armed groups attack women and girls as a means of destroying communities. Closely addressing those harms and other women-specific considerations is thus critical to knitting Haiti’s social compact back together.

The interim Prime Minister subsequently installed his cabinet. Four of the Ministers are women. They have six Ministerial mandates among them (the transitional government opted for some consolidation, eliminating or doubling up certain mandates deemed less significant to the transition). The Ministries they now lead include powerful ones like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Finance. These are positive steps, which by some measures meet the Constitution’s 30 percent quota for this set of appointments. But they still fall far short of equal participation.

There is even more evidence that women’s rights might not be prioritized by the transitional agenda and that women are not being empowered to lead on an equal basis. For example, the Haitian women’s movement was not significantly involved in identifying or vetting the Ministerial candidates (of either gender), and none of the Ministers appear to have significant ties to the movement, which raises concerns that women-specific priorities and perspectives will not be centered in the transitional government. Even the appointed Minister for the Status of Women and Women’s Rights  is largely unknown and does not have strong ties to the women’s movement. At a minimum, this is likely to hamper her effectiveness in representing the movement’s agenda. It is also noteworthy that the new Minister of Finance was initially appointed to a voting position on the TPC but withdrew citing gendered death threats. Her experience is representative of political violence that has historically chilled women’s participation in public spaces. Although it is encouraging that she nevertheless has the opportunity to serve, it is deeply concerning that the threats have not been met with a serious effort to ensure that political violence will not keep women outside Haiti’s transition.

The TPC and Prime Minister appointments call into question the transitional government’s commitment to women’s rights. At the same time, the improvements with respect to cabinet appointments following an outcry by advocates in Haiti and abroad – however imperfect – demonstrate that advocacy works.

There are several major functions of the transitional government that have yet to be constituted. They include an independent electoral council, national security and oversight bodies, and a Truth, Justice, and Reparations Commission. The transitional government’s policy agenda is also still being formed.

So now is the time to stand with Haitian civil society to make sure that women are not only included in the transition, but are also meaningfully empowered to make decisions and lead, and that women-specific considerations are central to the transitional government’s policymaking.

Taking advantage of this opportunity would require that at least half, and at minimum a third, of all appointments go to qualified women. It also means that all candidates, including men, should be screened for their understanding of and commitment to women’s rights. Ensuring women’s ability to safely participate in the political process must likewise be a top priority, and the transitional government must treat the issue of political violence seriously, alongside addressing gender-based violence more generally. Accompanying each choice, including assessments of women’s needs and priorities, must be a commitment to ensuring the representation of historically marginalized perspectives, including especially those of poor, rural, and young women, and those organizing at the grassroots level. There are further excellent recommendations from Haitian feminist organizations that should be closely considered, with more coming soon.

Haitian women and girls are some of Haiti’s best resources. Excluding them from the transition is not only unlawful and unjust, but self-defeating. We must do better.

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