As the Haitian Senate prepared to induct its newest lawmakers last week, outgoing Senate President Andris Riché couldn’t help but notice a disturbing trend inside the chamber’s wooden walls.
Not one female sat among the 14 newly elected black-suited senators or among the 10 existing ones.
“Despite all of the years of existence of our nation,” Riché said, “we are incapable of electing women in the Senate. We will be 30 guys deciding on the future of this country, while 53 percent of the population are women and they assume all of the economic responsibilities.”
Next door in the Lower Chamber of Deputies where 92 newly elected lawmakers were preparing to meet, the picture was equally stark: not one woman lawmaker.
Never miss a local story.
The absence of female power-brokers in Haiti’s male-dominated political landscape comes despite a newly adopted constitutional amendment calling for a quota of at least 30 percent female participation in public offices, including elected posts. It also comes as Haitians increasingly see females at the helm of their leading foreign embassies. France and Canada both have a female ambassador, and until August, the U.S. Embassy was also headed by a woman. And Trinidadian diplomat Sandra Honoré heads the United Nations Peacekeeping Stabilization Mission.
"We recognize that the current political context has adversely affected women in their right to participate to national decision-making and to contribute to shaping the destiny of their nation," said Honoré. "This brings to the fore the importance of putting in place a legal framework that guarantees the implementation of the constitutional provision of a minimum 30% women's representation in public life."
Leo H. A, Spaans, senior resident director for the National Democratic Institute-Haiti (NDI), said, "we all were aware that only 8 percent of the candidates were women in the legislative elections, so we were prepared for modest outcomes."
"But the present situation definitely requires further reflection, which is taking place at various levels, and new strategies."
Despite all of the years of existence of our nation, we are incapable of electing women in the Senate.
Sen. Andris Riché, former president of the Senate
Those reflections come as Haiti’s partial legislative and presidential runoffs, scheduled for Sunday, remain uncertain. On Monday, opposition protests against allegations of electoral fraud intensified in the capital as demonstrators threw rocks and burned tires and old cars. Crying revolution, protesters warned that they were engaged in a fight that could bring the country to civil war.
The intensified protests came as newly elected Senate President Jocelerme Privert continued the shuffle between foreign diplomats who are insistent that Sunday’s vote must go on and religious and private-sector leaders trying to prevent a deepening of the crisis. Meanwhile, the spokesman for the Provisional Electoral Council confirmed that fires had been set to four electoral offices in northern Haiti while police stopped a fifth from burning.
“We don’t have to choose violence,” Jovenel Moïse, the government-backed presidential runoff candidate, said in a morning press conference, where he called on Haitians to go to the polls despite a boycott by competitor Jude Célestin.
Célestin in a national radio address Monday night, called Sunday's runoff a "masquerade," and accused the international community of having "one democracy for you, and one for us." He asked Haitians to join him in a boycott of the balloting. His stance and letter declaring his non-participation now forces the government and the international community, which is largely paying the bill, to decide whether to go ahead with the vote with one candidate or postpone the runoffs.
Regardless of when the elections take place, political observers and feminists say the poor showing by female candidates in the legislative races requires a serious reflection.
“There was no political will to help them,” said Danièle Magloire, a leading feminist and activist. “Regardless of what is written on paper, there are certain actions that need to be taken in order to help women get elected.”
Ahead of the elections, a number of ambassadors and organizations expressed concerns about how to help women candidates. Seminars and receptions were held, and NDI launched a survey and focus group. The results showed that Haitians wanted to see more women represented in parliament and local government. It also showed that Haitian women preferred a female candidate by a margin of 3 to 1.
Those tendencies, however, were not reflected in the balloting.
Of the 1,855 candidates who ran for 139 parliament seats — 20 in the Senate and 119 in the Lower Chamber of Deputies — only six women successfully made it into the second round. Two of them are former lawmakers in the lower chamber.
“Part of the explanation may lay in the fact that cultural and behavioral change takes time,” Spaans said. “But there are also very practical reasons that keep women from succeeding as well. As women say themselves, it is difficult for them to get access to funding, to register themselves as candidates, to campaign, to pay for their poll-watchers, and to pay lawyers in case they will enter into a contestation process.”
Judith Benoit, who is one of the five women seeking a seat in the chamber of deputies, said there is also another aspect of Haitian political reality that she refuses to embrace.
“To enter into parliament you have to make deals,” said Benoit, a candidate on the VERITE (Truth) banner who is in a three-way runoff against two male candidates to represent the city of Cabaret. “I am not going to pay any money to win office.”
During the fraud-and-violence-marred Aug. 9 legislative first round, election officials suspended the vote in Cabaret. The election was rerun on Oct. 25, along with two dozen other districts.
We need someone to represent the mothers, the women who are mistreated by men, the women who can’t find work.
Judith Benoit, candidate for Lower Chamber of Deputies
Even with the uncertainty clouding this weekend’s runoff, Benoit said she’s continuing with her door-to-door grassroots campaigning and media outreach in hopes of winning over voters.
“We have to be represented. We need someone to represent the mothers, the women who are being mistreated by men, the women who can’t find work, who are in agriculture but can’t find the means to plant,” she said.
Dieudonne Luma Etienne, the lone female in the Senate race where six seats remain to be decided, says its takes a certain kind of woman to go head-to-head with not just a male competitor but female voters.
“Generally, what the men do is a campaign of charm, to show the women that ‘When I’m elected I’m going to do this for you; I’m going to buy you this,’ And in general they don’t really deliver,” said Etienne, who is running for one of two seats in the North Department as a candidate on President Michel Martelly’s PHTK party banner.
“There are a lot of women who are competent, who possess the capacity even more so than some of these men who have been elected,” she added. “But the force you have to put behind your campaign, the energy you have to invest, the type of banditry you have to apply in order to get elected means you have to have a woman like Sen. Dieudonne to arrive here.”