The Role Of Women In Rebuilding Haiti

More than 6 months after the earthquake, Haitians — and particularly Haitian women — continue to struggle. Danielle St. Lot has held several positions in Haiti's government, and has spent much of her career focused on promoting women's rights. St. Lot talks about the role of women in the rebuilding process.

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TONY COX, host:

More than six months after Port-au-Prince and much of Haiti crumbled in the earthquake, Haitians continue to slowly regroup and rebuild. Particularly hard hit are many of the women in Haiti.

Before the quake, the UN reported that almost half of all households were led by women, and they will likely be key to any rebuilding process. But women make up only a tiny portion of Haiti's senate and lower chamber of government. And since the earthquake, they face daunting challenges, extreme poverty, sexual assault, homelessness and other things.

Danielle St. Lot has worked for decades to promote women's rights and opportunities in Haiti. She also served as Haiti's first female minister of commerce, industry and tourism. And she joins us in just a moment.

We also want to hear from you, though, what unique abilities and perspectives do women in particular bring to nation building. We especially want to hear from those of you who have worked in development. 800-989-8255, that's the phone number to call. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Danielle St. Lot joins us right now here in studio 3A. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. DANIELLE ST. LOT (Former Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism, Haiti): Okay, thanks.

COX: Nice to have you here. Let's begin with this. What are some of the things that women in Haiti are grappling with in the aftermath of the earthquake?

Ms. ST. LOT: First of all, I want to take this opportunity to thank America and to thank the people, you know, American people that has been very supportive. Morally, financially, they are really, really supportive. I want to thank all of them for their prayers and their support.

The thing is, you know, the situation was already very bad for women and children in Haiti before the earthquake. And now, the situation, it's -I can say very, very difficult because 80 percent of the economy of the country is in Port-au-Prince. And it's like all the economy of the country has collapsed with this earthquake. And women are the ones suffering the most because they are in charge of families, of kids and also the elders. So it's a very, very challenging situation.

COX: What about - give us or paint a picture, if you will, for us please of the day to day life for, if there is such a person, as the average women in Haiti.

Ms. ST. LOT: Now, you know, they are homeless, so most people and mostly - most women are under tents in camp cities or on the streets under tents. And we are in the rainy season so we already have very bad sanitation situation. And with the hurricane season coming, it's a very, very difficult situation.

COX: Is it a climate in which the women of Haiti are not allowed or are not respected in terms of their ability to be decision makers both in the home, in the community, in the workplace?

Ms. ST. LOT: Let's say, Haitian women are the belier of the society. But when you are in crisis situation, you know, they are the most vulnerable because they are the one that, as I was saying, taking care of all the family. So now, you have women that used to be strong. They are not really back on their feet, you know, and they are still relying on humanitarian aid, on, you know, food and not back in business. Some are trying, you know, to recover but it's not easy.

COX: Are there no success - obviously, there are success stories. You are one of them. But are there not others?

Ms. ST. LOT: Oh, there are plenty. There are plenty. But, you know, you don't hear their voice. We have thousands of women in Haiti that have been, you know - if this country has been able to survive, I mean, all those last years with hurricanes, with all political turmoil, it's because you had those women, very strong, at the local level, grassroots women working in farming, in craft. And now, they really need a booster to be back in business.

COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tony Cox, sitting in for Neal Conan, who is away.

We are talking with Danielle St. Lot of Haiti. If youd like to join the conversation, you can reach us at TALK OF THE NATION. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. The email address is: talk@npr.org. So let's talk, if we might, Danielle. May I call you Danielle?

Ms. SAINT-LOT: Of course.

COX: Let's talk about the steps that need to be taken to improve the situation for Haitian women. Step one would be what?

Ms. SAINT-LOT: I know that first one now should be to work on some management of land use problem, you know, so that we can relocate communities. Affected women, affected family, to relocate them in other place, out of Port-au-Prince, and around economic opportunities. And I think this is mandatory, otherwise we would be there, you know, receiving aid all of our life. And it's an opportunity, the moment, to rebuild this country on better foundation. And we have to do it around education and business.

COX: Well, in order to do that then, I would think that the women of Haiti would need to have political clout, political muscle, in order to have their agenda moved higher up. Am I correct?

Ms. SAINT-LOT: Yes. We have muscles, but now we need political muscles.

COX: You need political muscle, yes. So how do you get that? And I'm thinking - before you answer - about the women of Liberia, for example, who coalesced and became a force to be reckoned with. And there are other examples globally, particularly with women of color, who are doing this. Are you able to begin to do that in Haiti? And how is it going?

Ms. SAINT-LOT: Yes. We have to learn a lot. We have to learn from women from Rwanda - they have been able to recover after genocide - from Liberia, from Benin. And that's why now we are, you know, getting prepared for next elections to run some seats in Congress, and also for municipal election.

Because we really think that, you know, the rebuilding of Haiti as to be - go through decentralization. As I said, 80 percent of the economy was in Port-au-Prince. It's a disaster. So you need to develop the country to have local economic development approach, around specific value chains like foods, tourism, craft, you know, where we can be competitive.

COX: But the men who run the government don't want that. Is that the situation?

Ms. SAINT-LOT: I don't think that they want that, that they don't want it. I think that women now have to realize that they have to be central. You know, the have to be the one rebuilding the country. And there's, you know, quite few group of young women, emerging leaders that are going to run. For the moment, our organization, Femmes en Democratie, we're supporting 50 women candidate for Congress. We - it's 90 seats. So if we can have 20 seats, it - we will be able to make a difference.

COX: Do the women vote? Do they vote there?

Ms. SAINT-LOT: Women vote, but they don't - you know, they don't vote for women sometimes, so it's a real challenge. We have to convince the women and men to vote for a woman, for a qualified woman.

COX: Now, you're a part of an organization, I believe, correct me if I'm wrong, called Vital Voices?

Ms. SAINT-LOT: Yes.

COX: And what does that organization do?

Ms. SAINT-LOT: We promote women leadership and human rights, entrepreneurship, and political participation.

COX: Now...

Ms. SAINT-LOT: And...

COX: ...do you have - is there involvement from women - let's say here in the United States or from other Caribbean nations - who are lending support financially, politically, socially, otherwise?

Ms. SAINT-LOT: Yes. Through Vital Voices, we have some strong women from the corporate America, from the political background that are supporting our efforts in Haiti in term of mentoring, coaching, training. And we have - let's say, a very - a presenter relationship, where they also learn from us and we move together forward. And now we are working on -because Vital Voices is not a relief organization, you know? But now we are working on a reconstruction program, empower women so that they can be key in this rebuilding process.

COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tony Cox. Join the conversation by calling us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is: talk@npr.org. We are talking about the women of Haiti who are trying to improve their lot. Our guest is Danielle St. Lot. How did you get to become the first female member of the Haitian government? And this was some years back.

Ms. SAINT-LOT: Yes. It was three years ago. First, I start my professional life in the public sector at the Ministry of Commerce, you know, more than - almost 30 years ago. So - and I left the public sector after 10 years to join the private sector, NGO sector. So when we had this interim government in 02, 04, the prime minister and the president asked me to join the government. And I was, you know, really happy, really pleased to serve. You know, it was an interim government. And I think it was my participation to the...

COX: I'm going to go to a call in a minute. I have a follow up question to that. And when you first took office, how were you treated by your colleagues?

Ms. SAINT-LOT: It was - at cabinet level, I don't think it was really a problem. But in the ministry, where I used to work years ago, at the beginning, it was quite difficult. For my male old colleague to have me as a minister, it was quite difficult. But after six months, you know, everything was going on well.

COX: All right. Let's take a call. We have Rosemary(ph) joining us from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Rosemary, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ROSEMARY (Caller): Hi. It's Rosemary. Thanks for joining me - letting me join you.

COX: You're welcome. Your question?

ROSEMARY: I'm associated with a four-year baccalaureate school of nursing in Leogane, Haiti. This school of nursing was founded five years ago, and it survived the earthquake, although it was close to the epicenter. And those young women who were student-nurses, under the leadership of their Haitian-American dean - and we also have young men in this school of nursing - responded to the earthquake and saved lives. Indeed, they became the health infrastructure of the city of Leogane.

When we look at the young students in this school, we see them very much as the future of Haiti and leadership. So I was wondering if your guest would comment on higher education and - for Haiti and the preparation of people to assume leadership positions in the recovery of Haiti.

COX: Thanks for the call, Rosemary. What about that?

Ms. SAINT-LOT: Yes. I had the pleasure to meet the dean of this school, and it's a great school, and did a great work after the earthquake. And you know, we have to face the education problem in Haiti at all levels, since primary school, you know, pre-K, daycare to higher education because education is key. That's the only way that we will be able to rebuild this country. Sixty percent of our population is less than 25 years old, so it's a source, you know, it's an energy, it's a positive, you know, thing. So I think it's really important.

And the other thing, you know, most people had moved in Port-au-Prince, leaving the countryside to live in Port-au-Prince that was overcrowded. And that's why we had these - all these disasters because of education, not from economic opportunities, because it's only in Port-au-Prince that you find good school, that you find university, that you find, you know, higher education school.

The school in Leogane, the nursing school, it's a really, you know, you don't find it, you know, in all over the country. So that's why I think that is very important now in the rebuilding process, to think about rebuilding the country around, and I said education and economic opportunity, to have good public school. Because one of the major problem that we have, 98 percent of our schools, primary, secondary schools, private university, they are private, you know? NGOs or (unintelligible) business or, you know, missionary school. We need a very, very good public school.

COX: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

One of the things I'd like you to address is this - because when we hear stories about the plight of people in Haiti, men and women, but particularly women because that's what we are talking about today - one might get the sense that most - a great majority are living, you know, in poverty and that there's unemployment and that there's sickness and that there's abuse and things of that sort, which may very well be true.

But at the same time, is it a situation where you have multiple classes of women in Haiti, upper class, middle class, lower class - and my question is whether or not, if this is true, that the women in the upper classes are reaching down or back, as the case may be, to bring up and to assist the women who are struggling.

Ms. SAINT-LOT: You will realize in Haiti, it's easier for the women that are in upper class to join with the women and the farmers, you know, the craft women, easier than men.

COX: Really?

Ms. ST. LOT: You know, especially in business. You see, they do business together, you know, but now you really need to educate both, you know, women from upper class and lower class, so that they can really modernize the way they do politics, the way they do business, and to be able really to build a strong network of businesswomen, of women politician.

And I think, you know, what happened during the earthquake, I don't say that there is no barrier, class barrier anymore. But we are all in the same boat. You know, we are all homeless. You can even have your credit card. I take this example, I spent 10 days under a tent in a camp. I had my credit card. I had my money in my pocket, and I was like all the other women on the field.

And I think it's - well, it was for all of us in Haiti, a lesson of humility that will help us to rebuild in with other perspectives with more humility because you know, class is a big barrier in Haiti, even the language. You know, have just a few people that speaks French. You have a color, you know, barrier. So I think with this earthquake, we have realized that we are all Haitians.

COX: Do you see this - my final question. And I only have a short period for you to respond. Do you see this, as bad as the earthquake was, as an opportunity for you to be successful?

Ms. SAINT-LOT: You know, it's an opportunity and we have you have to seize it, and the moment is right now. And, you know, maybe only God knows why, but this is an opportunity for Haiti renaissance.

COX: And you're optimistic?

Ms. SAINT-LOT: We're going to spend next eight, nine, very, very difficult, maybe as hard as January 12th, but the future is there. Now we can see there is a light because this country was dying.

COX: Thank you so much for dropping by Studio 3A and sharing your story with us. Good luck with it as well.

Ms. SAINT-LOT: Yes. And thanks a lot to America.

COX: Danielle St. Lot was Haiti's first female minister of commerce and industry. She is now partner and CEO at Caribbean Business Consulting and joining me, as I said, here in Studio 3A in Washington.

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