International Women’s Day 2010: Remembering Four Trailblazing Haitian Feminists

March 8, 2010


Malinda Smith, Vice-President, Equity

In Haitian Creole there is a proverb that says, “Men anpil, chay pa lau,” which roughly translates as “many hands lighten the load.”  This proverb aptly captures the transnational story of women’s struggles for equity and social justice. It also symbolizes the inclusive approach of four trailblazing Haitian feminists – Myriam Merlet, Myrna Narcisse Theodore, Magalie Marcelin and Anne Marie Coriolan – who all lost their lives in last month’s catastrophic earthquake. These Haitian women, like many others, were fanm poto mitan:  pillars of society. It seems fitting that on this 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day (IWD),  we remember them and the ongoing struggles for justice, equity and social wellbeing that this day represents and celebrates.


History of IWD

While many people likely associate March 8 with the UN’s 1970s declaration, the day first emerged out of solidarity struggles with working class women.  A call for a National Women’s Day followed the 1908 New York garment workers strike, and a year later German social democrat Clara Zetkin called for an IWD at the International Conference for Working Women in Copenhagen.

Four countries – Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland – observed IWD in 1910. Alexandra Kollontai, a Russian feminist, novelist and the world’s first female diplomat who helped to organize the day’s activities, characterized the massive turnout as “one seething trembling sea of women.” Participating in IWD events, women and men demanded women’s right to vote and hold public office, the right to work beyond “pink collar” jobs, an end to workplace discrimination, and greater access to education and vocational training.

Experiences of many of New York’s working class immigrant women resulted in a call for better labour legislation and energized the “Bread and Roses” campaign.  Over the next years, IWD activities dovetailed with the peace movement. Decades later, the UN heeded the demands of the women’s movement and proclaimed 1975 the International Women’s Year, officially adopting a resolution in 1977 that made the March 8 the UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace.

Pillars of society

Women’s rights, peace and social justice are precisely what Merlet, Narcisse, Marcelin and Coriolan advocated for in their beloved Haiti. Their deaths, along with 200,000 Haitians, sadly confirm what we already know: because of debilitating poverty, women and girls are particularly vulnerable to natural and human-made disasters. These Haitian feminists were fanm poto mitan.

Narcisse would have turned 45 today. She was the Director-General of the Ministry for the Status of Women and Women’s Rights (MCFDF) and died when the ministry’s building collapsed on those working inside. Narcisse was a lawyer, opera singer and long-time public servant who previously had served as Director of Human Resources at the Ministry of Justice. Fluent in Haitian Creole, French, Spanish and English, she taught languages at various levels of Haitian education. Above all, she had an abiding commitment to social justice.

Coriolan was a women’s rights advocate and served as a top advisor to Haiti’s MCFDF. Her daughter helped to pull her body from beneath the rubble. Coriolan founded Solidarite Fanm Ayisyèn (Solidarity with Haitian Women), the largest advocacy group in Haiti. Among other things, it provided social services to Haitian women. A major area of focus was education which was not free, and girls, especially in rural areas, rarely had opportunity to study and often ended up in domestic labour. As well, Coriolan and other feminists helped to outlaw marital rape and to reclassify it from a “crime of passion” or civil matter to a punishable crime against women in Haiti’s justice system.

Marcelin, 47, was a well-known activist, lawyer, stage and film actress, and a consultant to UNFPA Haiti.  Under Jean-Claude Duvalier’s dictatorship she was expelled from Haiti and came to Canada, where she studied law. After returning to Haiti she founded Kay Fanm, a women’s rights organization dedicated to ending violence against women, human trafficking, and to establishing shelters and social services for victims of domestic abuse. Kay Fanm also provided services to poor and working class women, including by making available microcredit and loans to women in the market, and by helping victims of violence obtain legal representation. In a recent interview with the Haitian Times, Marcelin invoked the image of the drum, which her organization used in public awareness campaigns: “It’s very symbolic in the Haitian cultural imagination. The sound of the drum is the sound of freedom, it’s the sound of slaves breaking with slavery.”

Merlet, 53, died when her home collapsed on her. She made a desperate cell phone call and a frantic message was even sent out via a CNN iReport, but help did not arrive in time. A feminist who fled Haiti’s dictatorship in the 1970s, she studied feminist theory and obtained an economics degree in Canada. She later returned to become chief of staff of Haiti’s MCFDF, and remained an advisor after she left to work within the NGO sector. Merlet was the founder of an advocacy organization, Enfofamn, which was dedicated to raising awareness of women’s issues though media, to collecting and sharing the stories and experiences of Haitian women, and to honouring their contributions by having streets named after them. She was also the founder of the National Coordination for Advocacy on Women’s Rights, which helped to coordinate services for girls and women.

In “The More People Dream,”  Merlet poignantly explained why she returned to her homeland after many years: “While I was abroad I felt the need to find out who I was and where my soul was. I chose to be a Haitian woman.” And, so, she returned to Haiti to lend a hand. “We’re a country in which three-fourths of the people can’t read and don’t eat properly. I’m an integral part of the situation. I am not in Canada in a black ghetto...I am a Haitian woman. I don’t mean to say that I am responsible for the problems. But still, as a Haitian woman, I must make an effort so that all together we can extricate ourselves” from poverty, illiteracy and hunger – and to dream.

On this IWD, many women’s groups around the world are holding memorials to commemorate the Haitian feminists who died in the quake. The main activities are being held in Port-au-Prince’s Plaza Catherine Flon in the Champ de Mars, a park that symbolizes the role played by Haitian women in the liberation struggles. I could not agree more with Régine Michelle Jean-Charles when she states that, “The best way to honour the legacy of our fallen Haitian feminist trailblazers will be to rebuild in a way that includes gender equity, to reconstruct institutions that assist the development of women and girls, and to provide more educational opportunities and resources for women and girls to become agents of transformation.”

Towards this end, men anpil, chay pa lau. Indeed, many hands will be needed to lighten the load.

Malinda S. Smith is vice-president (Equity) of the CFHSS and an associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta.