About Myriam Narcisse and Haiti Adolescent Girls Network:
Myriam Narcisse is a passionate advocate for the rights of girls and women. She has worked in the development sector in Haiti for over 20 years in the development and implementation of programs focused on adolescent girls, youth and women, including in a humanitarian context. For six years, she led the literacy and education department of Fonkoze (Fondasyon Kole Zepòl), the largest microfinance institution in Haiti, including leadership of the recovery program after the 2010 earthquake. As Executive Director of HAGN (Haiti Adolescent Girls Network), which she has led since 2015, she promotes the empowerment of girls and women. Ms. Narcisse has represented Haiti at various conferences and summits, including at the United Nations. In addition to her contribution to the Civil Society Reference Group of the Spotlight program in Haiti, she is co-chair of the Advisory Committee of the Partners Forum of Fòs Feminista, a feminist alliance that brings together more than 135 organizations in more than 35 countries across the country. world. Ms. Narcisse has a background in law. She is fluent in Haitian Creole, French and English. She is from Haiti and practices aikido.
Gender Equality Statistics for Haiti:
Gender Development Index: 0.845
Gender Inequality Index: 0.636
Classification: 5; low equality between in human development amongst genders
Interview with Myriam Narcisse (Shortened Transcript)
“What ways have you experienced gender discrimination during your schooling time in Haiti?”
“In Haiti. There is not really a gender friendly law or framework, we do have what we call the 10 year national plan for equality between the sexes, but gender itself is not something that's really written in our legal framework. Now, in terms of how I grew up, I came from a culture where gender roles are very well defined although we do not talk about it. So I grew up with perceptions that girls are meant to become mothers and pillars of the families. They had to take on gender accepted roles like being nurses or secretaries. Also in Haiti, although we do not have racial discrimination, we do have discrimination by color. So, if you look at people with very dark skin going all the way to the ones that are very light skin that could pass for white, there is an unspoken discrimination. I was lucky because before the dictatorship, it would have been very rare for someone like me to be in the position that I am now. Not only would I be discriminated against because I'm more African Haitian but also because of the shade of my skin. So when you are in a situation like that it makes you work harder, you have to get better grades, you have to really put yourself in a situation where you could get opportunities. For me it was much easier because after I graduated from college I started working more in the international scene, where there were more opportunities and less much discrimination based on the color my skin.”
“Can you describe your university experience in Haiti?”
“First of all it's important that you understand that in Haiti, it is believed that in order for you to have a chance in society, you need to get an education. It's considered as your way out of any situation you might find yourself in. So, when you go to school, you know that you have to make it. When I first went to college, I wanted to become a doctor but the year I graduated high school there was political disruption and the colleges were all closed down. So I went to vocational school that year and later I went to law school. I think it was a very good decision, because I really liked it, but it was also difficult because you're dealing with corruption. In my case, I had to try to find some connections, so that my name was not taken off the list. And that was a reality, because they are small colleges, there isn’t enough room for everybody who wants to go. When I entered college, they had registered more students than they had seats, so you have to be on top of your game. You really have to get there early to make sure you have a seat. At that time, you had some private colleges, but the state colleges were really considered the best. So being accepted into a state college really set me up to get started with my professional career later on.”
“What was your upper-level education like as a woman in Haiti?”
“At the time I grew up, there was a much larger distinction between the rural and urban environment in Haiti. I grew up in an urban environment in the capital. Those are circumstances that were more favorable to me. My father was very much old school, so I was sent to a Catholic education. I had a privileged education compared to most people from the rural side because Catholic schools are considered the best in terms of level of education. There were very few public schools per district, which were where people with less economic resources went. So, that difference already implied a certain level of discrimination. And as we went up in our classes, some students were falling behind and getting kicked out. I believe it's an unequal system. The system should accept and educate everybody. It's like they're building the elite in a way that really makes you think that they’re better than the others.”
“In your study of law did you learn more about the systemic discrimination and sexism present in Haiti?”
“My work in terms of defending women and girls’ rights really came later in life. When I studied law my passion was to be a state attorney, I was more on the side of the law. And in a country like Haiti if you make a stand, it's hard you are dealing with corruption. You would deal with a lot of pressure and a lot of risks. My background in law really came into fruition much later in life when I started working in the development sector. As I was working there, I started getting involved in work such as contributing to the development of the bill on responsible fatherhood. My law studies have proven, time and time again, to be so useful because, although I am not involved in the legal support, it's given me the scope that I needed to develop and implement the programs, so they are effectively responsive to the needs of those groups.”
“Have you been treated differently as you moved up to higher positions? If so, how?”
“When I started my first experience in the development sector, which was in an integrated program with men only, I was coming in as a woman in charge of doing some structuring work and because of my previous experience working as a secretary, itt was very difficult because the people I worked with were not taking me seriously. The irony was that although the donors were very happy with the new skills I was bringing in and the changes I was making, their (some of my colleagues’) attitudes towards me and the way they would respond to me displayed that they weren’t taking me seriously. It was more difficult for me, being a woman, to gain their respect as someone in a supervisory role. The hardest part was the women working with me felt and behaved in a similar way, just like (some of the) men did. Higher up on the ladder, when I became an executive director, it was a different environment because I came with a lot of experience. I was also lucky to have another woman, who I consider my mentor, as my supervisor while I was in that position. However, I still went through those same struggles with my team who were mostly composed of men.”
“What are the most common stereotypes about women in Haiti? Have they changed in time?
“The stereotypes we deal with today are the same stereotypes that were present decades ago. As mentioned before, women are expected to be secretaries or nurses in professional positions and otherwise housewives. We can see this especially in the justice department, where men are the majority and in control with the same prejudice: they still believe they are better and stronger. Even the young male population: they still believe that men must be the provider. There are differences between urban and rural areas, where prejudice remains untouched. For example, one of my colleagues in the education sector about 5 years ago was invited by one of her professors to go out for a drink before he corrected her paper, which would have been much less likely to happen to a young man.”
“You say these stereotypes haven’t changed in the last few decades. What is the government doing to change this?”
“Not as much as I would like. There has been a lot of advocacy done especially by women’s rights organizations. So, there has been progress, which is reflected in our electoral law, where there has been a greater push for a bigger presence of women in the political forum. In every election now, there has to be a quota of at least 30% women. However, there is still not enough being done. Women are about 52% of the population in Haiti, so why 30% representation quota? It doesn’t make sense. The former senate only had one woman out of forty something seats. There needs to be 50/50 representation but we’re not there yet.
“In what ways have you seen violence or discrimination towards women in Haiti on a daily basis that may seem normalized by Haitian society.”
“That’s a question that strikes home because from my experience, violence is something we have to dig deeper into our society in order to address it. Women and girls are the ones really bearing the brunt of the inherent presence of violence in every aspect of our daily life. For us as a society to be able to address violence, we have to start with not only developing a culture of peace, but also developing a culture of dialogue. We have to learn to talk to one another. I grew up with spanking and later corporal punishment. This is the outward expression of violence but the communication that should happen within families and households is where this should begin. I was very much afraid of my father. I could not dream of going home pregnant because I knew he would literally kill me. In the way I was raised, I was never put in a position that allowed me to navigate the dangers and risks that young women are facing in everyday life. I believe this responsibility starts with women because women are the ones raising boys, and we should seek to prevent the unconscious perpetuation of these stereotypes. When we talk about
violence against women, we definitely need to strengthen the law, strengthen the perception and provide resources through the development of our culture. Let’s say you are a victim of violence. How supportive and enabling is the environment to your actually exercising your rights? We cannot agree to disagree and find common ground. Something that is not reflected in our policies and resources is that even if we do not agree to disagree, a woman needs to be able to exercise her rights and to be supported.”
“How can Haiti reduce the dangers of sexual abuse in school while still encouraging women to pursue education?”
“If you look at elementary schools, we have more or less equality in terms of attendance from boys and girls. It used to be common in the past for families to only send boys if they did not have enough money to send all their kids to school. However that has changed a lot over the last 20 years. This task requires a strong political will for the government to consider and meet the demand of education and health for the young population. In Haiti the youngest population (20 and under) is 50% of the total population. For the everyday life of a girl, it is common to fail and drop out because the parents cannot pay. Improvements would allow girls more options instead of falling back on options such as looking to get a sugar daddy to help with education expenses. It would also help limit their exposure to sexual abuse from teachers. Approaching women within the household requires a specific course of action whereas in the education sector we need to allocate resources to limit violence. Education needs to be more accessible financially to families as well.
“How difficult is it for women to get a job in Haiti right now?”
“Very difficult. There are not enough jobs; unemployment is very high. Sexual harassment in the workplace is a real frequent problem. It’s very difficult to find a job that avoids this especially during the last three years. Because of this insecurity we are suffering, we are experiencing a growing brain drain. So, it is generally difficult to find a job, it is even much harder for young women because of stereotypes and sexual harassment.
“Are women involved in politics?”
“Yes, they are. I have to say, although I've been painting a grim picture, what we have now is the result of a lot of advocacy work done by women’s rights organizations. Unlike today, up until 1987, women who got married were considered minors. So, our society has been working very hard to improve that situation. Just having one woman in the senate doesn’t mean that there was only one woman as a candidate. In reality there have been more however we are still
dealing with the perception and prejudices and therefore we need resources to support the efforts being made, like the current one by UN Women to promote women’s political participation. I participated in meetings where they would look at how we can support women so they cannot just be candidates, but also successfully run and win campaigns while changing the perception of voters.”
“Why is the marriage rate in Haiti so low?”
“Okay I did some research on what you have said and if you’re looking for reliable data on Haiti, I would recommend you consult the demographic health survey [DHS] which is a survey that is done every four to five years and gives a lot of valid data. So, I did a little research because according to the most recent DHS survey, single women represented about 40% of the population [of women] and single men represented about 56% [of the population of men]. There are many situations that aren’t taken into consideration as a total. For example, married, single, divorced, widowed, separated and living with have their own statistics. Single in Haiti doesn’t necessarily mean living alone, because you could be legally single and living with someone. Now with the changes in the legal system, what we call concubinage exists, which is the legal status of living with someone in the same house while not specifically being married. If you were to look at the population as a whole whether an individual is legally married or living with someone, you will find that the proposed “marriage rate” will be much higher. I have to say in our society, concubinage is morally, socially, and religiously (in some religions) accepted now, and those under concubinage are recognized the same rights as people who are married by law.”
“Thank you very much Ms. Narcisse. It has been an honor to interview you.”
“So sorry I haven't had a chance to go over all the questions I was really looking forward to.
Again it's been an honor to be invited to share with you and I really wish I had time to learn more from you. But I'm very open if you feel that you have questions, reach out with an email. I'm more than happy to share some of my thoughts and perspective about my work.”