At a prayer breakfast in Port-au-Prince last month, 23 Haitian and U.S. women colleagues met to drink coffee, share a bite and, well, grieve. Our host, Danielle St. Lot, Haitian activist and entrepreneur, did not plan this grieving and we certainly did not expect it. The hour of laughter and chatter beforehand could not have prepared us for it. But it had to happen. It had to come. It was time.
January 12, 2012 will be the two-year anniversary of the earthquake that devastated many of their lives and threw those of us invested in the country into triage mode. The network of women activists, business and political leaders that I had been working with in Haiti before the earthquake at Femmes en Democratie (FED), woke up one day to their children screaming, their grandmothers dying, their houses falling and their country destroyed. They had no time to grieve their losses because there was work to do.
Two weeks after the quake, Danielle, the founder of FED, made it onto a plane to D.C. in the only skirt she had left, a pair of flip-flops, and not even a dollar on her, to speak to members of Congress about the devastation. She was convinced that people had to know the extent of the loss and, in particular, what the women of Haiti needed. Over the last two years, she has become a voice for women throughout Haiti.
Each of the 23 women present on that balmy day in a garden restaurant in Port-au-Prince had a similar story. Lives were lost and businesses shattered. But there were neighborhoods to rebuild, people to help, and children to care for, so no one had time to stop and cry. As one guest sobbed: “We have never cried. We have been so strong. It is time to cry.” And we did. We mourned deeply.
Then we moved on.
So now on the two-year anniversary, my Haitian women colleagues want you to know, it is time to move on.
With only 6 women parliamentarians and 4 women appointed ministers, Haiti is in step with the rest of the globe, where women still hold only 15.6 percent of elected seats. How can we make sure the voice of half the population will be heard in decision and policy making processes affecting Haiti? We need to support female politicians through training and assistance and to increase women’s political participation at local, regional and national levels. And we need to push our government aid organizations like USAID who have money allocated for Haiti to spend more on women and make the funds accessible to smaller, micro-NGO’s in Haiti that work with women.
Haitian women also need money and jobs. Studies show that when women control finances, more is spent on health, education and well-being of their family and community. By investing in women, you are investing in the whole country.
Haiti is now “open for business.” It is ripe for investment opportunity under the visionary leadership of new President Michel Martelly. With its proximity, human capital and young, smart Haitian business people spearheading, Haiti is ready to become a name in manufacturing and agriculture. For companies who are investing in Haiti or are considering it, we ask that you look through the gender lens at each of your projects. Measure not only the impact it will have on women in the community, but how your business can be better served by hiring more women, putting them in managerial positions, and giving them technical training.
This is not about billion dollar investments; it is about small investments in existing or small businesses that want to expand, especially women run businesses destroyed in the earthquake. They need access to loans with better conditions, vocational training, business education and technology. At the women’s trade show in Port-au-Prince last month, I saw beautiful merchandise ready to export but they need partners.
Haiti is not just “rebuilding” with cement and muscle. Haiti is “reimagining” a nation, with a bold vision and collective dream. They have the opportunity to look towards the single vision of citizen participation in decision-making, where everyone’s rights are respected and women have an equal say in the process and equal opportunity for economic freedom. President Martelly, with his willpower, energy, intelligence and heart is a strong supporter of women. One constitutional amendment that he supports says that, if ratified, 30 percent of offices in national life must be occupied by women.
Pretty progressive. VERY smart business.
Actress Maria Bello is co-founder of the Haitian women’s organization, We Advance. (weadvance.org)