Haitian women have been increasingly vocal and active in social, political and economic issues since the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986. Though it has not come easily, their progress in changing gender relations of power within the home, within social movements and within the nation has been steady.
Women's organizations have been key to these advances, helping create the space to foster and protect women's activism. One network is helping women gain a voice, literally: the Haitian Women's Community Radio Network (REFRAKA by its Creole acronym).
The importance of radio cannot be overstated in a country where 45 percent of men and 49 percent of women are illiterate. Nor can the significance of women taking the microphone, in a country where aggressive patriarchy in the home and society, as well as violence from male partners and the state, have tried to keep them silent.
Founded in 2001, REFRAKA includes 25 member stations in nine of Haiti's 10 geographic departments. The network has trained about 150 women as journalists, program hosts and production technicians.
Moreover, REFRAKA helps women in various radio stations make programs about local issues, while also producing national-level shows which are then aired on member stations. The REFRAKA staff produces a special radio-magazine each month, one hour each, on specific gender-related topics such as women's political advocacy, gender relations, Haitian women's social realities, violence, HIV-AIDS and news about women from around the world. They also produce 30-minute shows especially for girls ages 11-15 in community schools, called Own Your Body, Care for Your Body, which discuss issues including girls' bodies and health, and relations between girls and boys.
REFRAKA's office was destroyed and all of its archives, materials and supplies were lost in the January 12 earthquake. The group's work is temporarily on hold as the staff reestablishes the institution. Soon they will resume their programs, this time with a sharp focus on the status of women in this catastrophe phase and the participation of women in the reconstruction.
Marie Guirlene Justin, program director of REFRAKA, tells more.
"When we started working, it was very hard because of the machismo from men who couldn't accept women's voices getting out like this. Before it was hard to find women speaking on the radio; now it's not. Now women are advancing. More women are trained in reporting and production. There are more women on the radio, and there are more women's radio programs. Now we have women who are directors of radio stations, though there are still no women owners. Men are starting to understand, and gender issues are crossing over into other radio programs.
"More women are speaking their own truth. For example, you have CONAP [the National Coalition to Advocate the Rights of Women by its French acronym] ... When CONAP hosts something in Port-au-Prince, REFRAKA does a radio program on it and gets it out into the countryside. That way rural women don't feel alone. We cover what groups like SOFA [Solidarity Among Haitian Women] are doing, which gives the women's movement a lot of strength.
"We're taking small steps. Today on the radio, you hear less music and proverbs discriminating against women. This has to be reinforced so that we don't go backwards. You know that relations between women and men are fragile today, especially with all the displacement since the earthquake.
"One of the new concepts following the earthquake is reconstructing another form of participation, where women can participate in everything, in the big debates about reconstruction, in planning national development for another Haiti. A process where women and men put their hands together to build something new in this country will be very different than one where men are making decisions for everyone. When we have a society where women have a say in what they want and need, we'll be closer to having a society based on social justice, an equitable society. Then we'll have balanced relations, with the possibility for everyone to live in peace.
"Popular communications is a big part of this. It's an important form for people to have their own voice to speak about questions that impact their lives with the reconstruction. Community stations are close to the people, and they give people a chance to understand what's happening and insert themselves in it.
"In the context of Haiti's reality today, we really need solidarity. In the earthquake, our office was smashed and we lost everything we had collected over nine years: our computers, records, cameras, office furniture ... It's all gone. Myself, I was trapped inside the office alone and I thought I would die. My ear was sliced open when a cement block fell on it. My home was destroyed.
"We don't want the kind of international 'help' that we're seeing throughout Haiti today, much of which is about domination. We want an exchange of experiences in the North and South where we each bring our own contribution. Today we need that type of solidarity, especially globally in the women's movement."