HAITI: Haitian Women Learn to Read, Write and Speak Out

Wednesday, October 5, 2011
British Red Cross
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

The levels of literacy in Haiti are low, but among the most vulnerable groups living in camps they are even lower. It is estimated that 80 per cent of residents of La Piste camp in Port-au-Prince – home to around 45,000 people displaced by the earthquake on 12 January 2010 – cannot read or write. The British Red Cross has been working in La Piste camp since the earthquake. Its latest initiative, which started in May 2011, involves teaching groups of the most vulnerable women in the camp to read and write in Creole. Six unemployed teachers from the camp lead the classes, which have so far reached 70 women. The syllabus is based on relevant subjects, including health and hygiene issues and gender-based violence and protection.

A problem shared

Borry Jatta, camps projects manager for the British Red Cross, explains: “These classes are not just about learning to read and write. The rationale behind them is that while the women are improving their literacy skills they are also being exposed to messaging around issues that affect them every day in the camp, that they will then be able to pass on to their families.”

Gender-based violence, a severe issue in the camp, is a key subject discussed in the literacy classes. Joachin Montus is in charge of delivering messages on violence prevention. As well as informing the women on how they can avoid being victims of violence, and how to get help if they are, Montus helps the women share their stories with each other.Montus explains, “The level of violence and gender-based violence in the camps is extreme. The main symptoms that we see as a result of this are fear, frustration, insomnia and in the worst cases irreparable mental problems. “Many people are leaving the camp because it is too dangerous to live in, even if they don't have anywhere better to go. When the students share their stories it can be very disturbing and sad, but it is important to give them a place where they can safely discuss these things and learn from each other.“

Proud and confident

The classes are made up of two groups: beginners who are learning the alphabet and how to write their names, and those who are more advanced and able to complete dictations on subjects such as cholera, cyclone preparedness and what to do in an earthquake. Carline Cesar, a Red Cross volunteer who works in the classroom once a week, says: “These women started from scratch and now they are able to write whole texts. It's incredible to watch their confidence develop along with their writing skills. The students are amazingly enthusiastic – so much so that they want classes every day. They can't get enough.” Esperanse Ronise, 43, is one of the literacy students. In two months, she learned to do basic dictations. She says, “Now when I go places I can read the signs. It makes me feel so proud that I can now write my name and read what is going on around me.”

Giving women a voice

The Red Cross has also started a women's committee in the camp, after it became clear that the general male-dominated community meetings were not an adequate forum for women to express themselves. Borry says: “This has made a huge difference; the women now feel much more comfortable to express themselves and they speak up more and talk in detail about their concerns. There is still a lot of fear about reporting cases of rape and gender-based violence but we are doing everything we can to given women a confidential and secure way to do this, as well as working with partners to improve security in the camp. “This has included advocating within the UN system for action to be taken, resulting in upgrading of fences and increased patrols. We also arranged the donation of 16 solar-powered streetlights from the Digicel Foundation to improve night-time security.”Lovania Nourissant, 42, has been a literacy student for the past two months. She previously suffered a violent attack and robbery in her tent, and says: “This kind of thing has happened to so many of us. For those who have not lived through this, I hope I can help them know how to protect themselves from a similar situation. These classes are giving me a lot more confidence in my life. They also allow me to forget the hard times in the camp for a while. That is priceless.”