Dolly Pomerleau was one of the pioneers who founded the Quixote Center in 1975. She and Bill Callahan launched this justice work with a strong commitment to social justice in both civil society and within the Catholic Church. In both arenas, that justice included changing structures to establish the equality of women and men. Dolly was utterly committed to that and all the other projects and ideals to which the Center committed itself over the years.
She was a Co-Director of the Center from the start… shaping the vision and helping launch many different projects. From the beginning, she advocated feminist ideals and full gender equality, making sure these values were a part of every aspect of life at the Center.
And in 1975, she was one of the pioneering women who founded the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC), the organization that has been a leader in the quest for women’s equality in the Roman Catholic Church for more than 40 years. The Quixote Center has long worked in coalition with WOC.
Over the years, Dolly worked on a variety of projects at the Quixote Center, including Catholics Speak Out, which emphasized the crying need for gender equality and an expanded role for lay decision-making in the Church.
She is a strong advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and was one of several women who chained themselves to the front door of the Republican National Committee when that party took the ERA out of its platform. The group was there for a full day in the hot sun, attracting a wide range of onlookers, including Republican women inside the building, many of whom were at their windows, pointedly expressing support for the action with hand signals, flag waving, and the like.
Dolly is also committed to rectifying injustices of any kind where her actions might make a difference. She protested US attempts to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua in the 1980’s, helping to establish the Quest for Peace project, which raised hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid for Nicaragua over the years. This meant filling many cargo containers of aid that were shipped to that country regularly and sent to the Center’s partner organization, the Institute of John XXIII in Managua. The Institute then distributed the aid to the neediest parts of Nicaragua.
Several times, Dolly visited that country and travelled with Ketxu Amezua of the Institute to see the many and impressive projects that were underway as a result of help from the Quixote Center. Her fluency in Spanish was an enormous help in all this work.
In the United States, Dolly was never shy about protesting US policy in Nicaragua, and one time was arrested in the rotunda of the US Capitol as part of a group that was kneeling to pray for an end to US actions against the Nicaraguan government.
She also advocated for justice in Haiti when Aristide was the duly elected President, and she helped establish a new project at the Center called Haiti Reborn.
Her values were broad. When some new staff people at the Quixote Center – Jane Henderson and Shari Silberstein – suggested a project aimed at ending the death penalty, Dolly (and the staff) endorsed it heartily. This project eventually spun off from the Center to become Equal Justice USA.
And oh yes… Dolly is a native of the state of Maine – northern Maine near the Canadian border. Thus she is tri-lingual: English, French, and Spanish.
Dolly has been a strong and fearless advocate for justice in both church and civil society. She may be retiring from the Quixote Center, but her words and her spirit will never retire! She will always be there!
Part VII of the Inspirational and Influential Women of the World Blog Series
“The only thing that has limited us in the past was our own fears.” – Dolly Pomerleau
We are ending the Inspirational and Influential Women of the World Blog Series with several installments honoring our fearless leader and co-founder, Dolly Pomerleau. I had the immense pleasure of working with and learning from Dolly this past year. I will forever admire her spunk, endless passion and conviction, as well as her ability to surround herself with people who want to make the world a better place.
In order to convey the inspiration and influence of Dolly Pomerleau, we must start with the story of the Quixote Center. In the mid 70’s, co-founder Bill Callahan worked at the Center of Concern, another justice-centered organization that took hold after Vatican II. Together, Dolly and Bill realized that none of the new and shiny nonprofits in promoting justice and social change in this vein were autonomous from the Church, which greatly limited their ability to work on the various problems within the Church and on issues that it opposed. It was then, in 1975, that these two radically progressive Catholics began hatching an idea to create their own social justice organization – the Quixote Center.
When discussing how the name ‘Quixote Center’ came to be, she recalls, “our goal was to work on issues of justice regardless of what people thought of us. Don Quixote did what he believed in and suffered the consequences. Quixote is someone with a lot of imagination, a little zaniness, sometimes not having good judgment in terms of societal standards, and willing to be called crazy. One of the hallmarks is laughter and a strong sense of community.”
In 1976, the Quixote Center officially opened with the goal of ruffling some feathers within the Catholic church, promoting equality, and fighting for the overlooked of society. Unsurprisingly, the Center sought out one of the most taboo issues they could find: women’s ordination. While working on women’s ordination Dolly became one of the founders of the Women’s Ordination Conference and a leader within the movement.
The Center continued to expand. As things began to erupt in Central America during the late 1970s, the Center turned its focus to the injustice and violence in the region. Dolly recalls, “We didn’t know what it would involve, but we knew it was a revolutionary time.” In 1980, the Center held a vigil for Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran Archbishop who was assassinated, and thus their work in Central America began. Dolly and Maureen Fiedler journeyed to Nicaragua, intrigued by Pope John Paul II’s disastrous visit, only to see the devastation and returned to the States thinking, “What can we do?”
In the hopes of educating the American public, Dolly and Maureen decided to publish a tabloid entitled Nicaragua: A Look at Reality, answering the basic questions about the Sandinista’s revolution and U.S. intervention. Within a year, the Center’s involvement grew and they began regularly shipping millions of dollars of humanitarian aid to the country, thanks in part to the fundraising work of Dolly.
Dolly transformed monotonous fundraising into community-building. She stated, “Turn people into constituents by giving them something to do – organize them politically, have them call legislators, organize cargo containers, etc. People were materially and physically invested in the Center’s programs.” Dolly invited people into the fold, creating not just supporters but friends – a Quixote family called by the Quixote spirit to enact radical social change and promote peace.
The Center has collected a wide array of issues and continues to pick up new ones up along the way. When speaking with Dolly she told me, “The Center hasn’t tended to rush to the popular issues,” instead taking on the passion of the employees, ranging from the elimination of the death penalty to inclusive citizenship.
As I sit and talk to Dolly she has a smile on her face. She reminiscences, “The most creative and productive time was in the ‘80s, and the work of Quest for Peace. There was national organizing, lobbying against Congress, aid sent to Nicaragua – just an incredible era. They were the best years of the Center for me.” Dolly’s hope for the Center is that it will continue to grow in size and allow the current programs to thrive.
After 42 years, Dolly is retiring (for real this time) next week. Without her we would not have the Quixote Center, and for that we are ever grateful.
Part VI of the Inspirational and Influential Women of the World Blog Series
“Don’t Call Me A Saint.” – Dorothy Day
To call Dorothy Day a saint would be to dismiss her and her life’s work too easily, according to Ms. Day (Catholic Education). Born in New York City in 1897, Dorothy lived a balanced life of freedom and service until her passing in 1980 in New York City. She was the middle child in a family of seven in a two-parent Protestant household. Her mother was a homemaker and her father was a sports writer, which caused the family to move twice until they landed in Chicago where they stayed for over a decade.
An intelligent young lady who enjoyed the liberal arts, Dorothy enrolled in college at the University of Illinois at the age of 16 to study journalism. Her collegiate life was short-lived and only lasted 2 years but had a huge impact on her life moving forward by exposing her to different social conditions.
“There was a great question in my mind. Why was so much done in remedying social evils instead of avoiding them in the first place? . . . Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?” (The Catholic Worker)
She soon left the University of Illinois and moved to New York where she continued to practice journalism while immersing herself in socialist ideology. She was only 18 years old.
Being young in New York and living in free-spirited Greenwich Village allowed Dorothy to be immersed in art and activism. She began living a very passionate life as a “progressive activist and an artistic bohemian.” Her journalism surrounded her with anarchists and free thinkers and various types of liberals overall who were motivated to change social conditions, “She reported on protests, the ‘bread riots’ against the high cost of living, strikes, unemployment, and the many forms of human misery.” (The Catholic Worker) Writing captivating stories, being arrested for protests, and having lovers was nothing new for her during this segment of her life. It was through one of these lovers, writer Lionel Moise, that Dorothy became pregnant and, in an effort to keep Moise, had an abortion. He still ended up leaving her.
Her writing as well as her commitment to social justice took her to Europe, Chicago, New Orleans, California, and eventually back to New York. It was during this time that she wrote and published her book, which was eventually adapted into a screenplay, called The Eleventh Virgin. And with money from the book’s sales, she bought a beach house on Staten Island which remained in her possession until her death.
Catholic Worker Movement
Although immersed in a Bohemian lifestyle, Dorothy’s view of God never faltered. As life went on in her beach house, so too did her writing and activism. It was with her partner at the time, Forster Batterham, that she became pregnant again. Not wanting to live with the regret she experienced with her past abortion, she decided to have the child, a daughter by the name of Tamar – her only child. With the birth of Tamar, Dorothy became more in-tune with the Catholic Church. And after her daughter’s baptism, converted to Catholicism in 1927.
She became a devout Catholic and continued to write but felt that she had more to offer. It was during this time, the Great Depression, that she met Peter Maurin. Peter encouraged Dorothy to start the Catholic Worker newspaper as a way to encourage people to apply Catholic social teachings to everyday life. It was from the newspaper that the Catholic Worker Movement came to be, which is what Dorothy Day is most known for helping to co-found. From the movement was the establishment of homes known as Catholic Worker Houses, in which simple living was practiced and hospitality was given to those in need,
“Her basic message was stunningly simple: We are called by God to love one another as He loves us. If God was one keyword, hospitality was another. She repeated, again and again, a saying from the early Church, ‘Every home should have a Christ room in it, so that hospitality may be practiced.’ ‘Hospitality,’ she explained, ‘is simply practicing God’s mercy with those around us.’” (Catholic Education)
A writer, activist, Bohemian, devout Catholic, and mother, Dorothy Day was many things and lived many lives. To call her a saint would dismiss her too easily because she was more than that, she was a human being. Her three autobiographies, The Long Loneliness, From Union Square to Rome, and The Eleventh Virgin all capture Ms. Day’s many lives. I find it odd that so many people want to canonize her because it was clear from the way that she lived her life that she never wanted to be glorified. It seems the best way to show appreciation for her and her work is to continue to show compassion and mercy to those around us.
On April 13 and 14, 2018, the Quixote Center Reunion gathered long-standing QC friends and former and current staff members to celebrate our shared history of pursuing impossible dreams. If it felt at times like a high school or college class reunion, there is a good reason. Since its founding 42 years ago, the Quixote Center has often functioned as a school where young, idealistic people learned about the nuts and bolts of working for peace and justice. They learned on the job how a nonprofit survives – developing programs and strategies for their implementation, creating budgets, forging alliances with partners, and (of course) fundraising, all with characteristic QC humor. We believed that the ability to laugh is key to surviving the grim realities of systemic injustice that can seem impossible to change. Thus, our mission statement:
A gathering of people who work and pray with laughter,
to reach for the stars that seem too distant to be touched,
or too dim to be worth the effort.
We try to be friends with people in need,
and to celebrate life with people
who believe that the struggle to be like Jesus
in building a world more justly loving
is worth the gift of our lives.
Of the approximately 130 people who have worked at the Center, some have died, others we cannot find, and a few have permanently parted ways. But the majority remain connected by a silken, unbreakable thread, and that connection was palpable at the reunion events.
On Friday evening, over 100 people gathered at the College Park Marriott for dinner and fun, some having travelled from as far away as Scotland, Nicaragua and the west coast. And it was fun – with wistful moments interwoven in the program.
The founders were present—Dolly Pomerleau and Maureen Fiedler in the flesh, and Bill Callahan in spirit, in song, and in the beautiful quilt made from his favorite t-shirts after his death. Samantha Hegre played the cello as people arrived. Frank DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry emceed both as himself and as Sancho. Mercy Coogan was the “Greek chorus” seeking to keep Sancho in line. Dolly Pomerleau welcomed everyone, and John Marchese, QC’s director, presented the Quixote Center of today with special emphasis on our new program “Activists in Residence.” Bill d’Antonio read a poem he wrote as a tribute to QC co-founder, Bill Callahan. Maureen Fiedler, Jane Henderson, Shari Silberstein, Ketxu Amezua, and Tom Ricker shared their tributes on the major programs with which they worked.
Even Sancho, our two-faced, curmudgeonly computer persona was there, complaining and kvetching the whole time.
And then we heard from Bill de Blasio, former Quixote Center employee and current mayor of New York City. His RSVP had been a “maybe” until two days before the event, when we were told he could be with us for “an hour.” In reality, that hour stretched out for the whole evening. Taking advantage of Dolly’s offer to speak, he remembered his interview at the Quixote Center (feeling out of place in a suit and tie) and his days organizing shipments of humanitarian aid for people in Nicaragua. He described organizing a softball league among solidarity groups in the DC area and the lesson he learned about the need to laugh, especially at ourselves. In this vein, the team was named “The Screaming Communist Iguanas,” and he concocted a plan to increase the popularity of justice work by opening a “Pizza and Justice” center. He spoke warmly of his colleagues, Bill Callahan, Dolly Pomerleau, and Maureen Fiedler, and he ended with a message of hope.
Apparently, a right-wing New York Post reporter infiltrated our reunion! At 9:47 p.m. he posted “Bill de Blasio was back to being just another comrade Friday night at an out-of-town reunion for a left-leaning social justice group that helps families sympathetic to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.” It’s nice not to be ignored!
Tom Ricker, joined by Andy Laken, performed an original song commenting on current events in the US. Then the entertainment turned to Quixote Center history. Being fans of NPR’s “Wait, Wait…” we drew up stories from QC’s history leaving the audience to vote on which story was true. Two out of three scenarios were easily ferreted out – the third – not so much. Hosting this section was Heidi Siebentritt. The readers were Joe Izzo, Steve Brown, and Nancy Sulfridge.
To end the evening, we sang the Quixote anthem “The Impossible Dream” with gusto and a surprising degree of consensus on pitch. At 10:00 p.m., Bill de Blasio quietly slipped out for his four-hour ride back to New York. Attendees who were staying at the hotel had some time to reminisce and get reacquainted; the next day, we heard reports that some of the former staff were up until 2:00 a.m.!
Saturday, April 14, was reserved for a gathering of former staff. There were 35 people present – a few more than the 24 people who were expected. There were special gifts for these Questers. Walter Winfield, a former QC staff member living in Taiwan, couldn’t attend, but he put together a Quixote “Year-(s) Book” which we reproduced in the office. It included pictures and brief bios of all former staff we could locate, a list of people who were “camera shy” and those we could not find, a memorial list of those who have died, and a touching tribute to Bill Callahan, written by Walter. The second gift was a votive candle holder made by Dolly with a glaze that contained a sprinkling of Bill’s ashes. Everyone was genuinely touched by these presentations, some even teary.
The main event on Saturday was a round-robin. Everyone present spoke about their current work, and many gave touching tributes to how formative their time at the Center had been and how it has continued to impact their lives. Some remembered their surprise that, even though they were fresh out of college, Maureen, Bill and Dolly gave them equal voice in discussions and decision making. No one missed the sometimes-endless staff meetings!
By 2:30 p.m. folks meandered off to continue their lives with other friends, colleagues, and family, and to pursue their own work for justice, whether locally or globally.
The Reunion was successful because of the generous and talented people who helped shape it – special thanks to Carol Binstock, Mercy Coogan, Jessice DeCou, Mfon Edet, John Marchese, and Jocelyn Trainer, and to all who attended with their enthusiasm and happy hearts.
If you believe in miracles, this weekend was one.
Environmental changes have always been a driving force for migration. From natural disasters to drought and flooding, changes in the environment impact lives and livelihoods, forcing people to abandon their homes. Over the last 40 years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people forced to migrate as a result of environmental factors. Catastrophic storms are more common, areas suffering from prolonged drought have tripled in the last 40 years, and rising sea levels put coastal communities at risk. By 2050, the International Office of Migration estimates that as many as 250 million people could be displaced as the result of environmental impacts. Unlike those displaced by war or systemic violence, people forcibly displaced as the result of environmental change are rarely recognized as refugees when they cross borders.
Forced migration due to effects of climate change will impact all countries. The United States could see 13 million people internally displaced as a result of rising sea levels by 2045, especially along the east and gulf coasts. The majority of the communities facing permanent inundation are socioeconomically vulnerable communities. Around the globe, drought has already led to displacement and related social tensions as rural communities are forced to move to urban areas. The origins of social conflict and violence are certainly complex, but as climate change forces the movement of people, tensions increase. In Syria, for example, “record drought and massive crop failure beginning in 2006 led to the mass migration of predominately Sunni farmers to Alawi-dominated cities, increasing sectarian tensions and generating conflicts over diminished resources.” Rising food prices in 2007 and 2008, from drought and increased transportation costs, led to protests across the globe, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Guinea, Haiti, Indonesia, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Nepal, Peru, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen. The UN estimates 144 million people were driven into poverty by the increase in food prices by 2011. In Niger alone, 5.1 million people became food “insecure.”
In Haiti the intersection of environmental degradation, climate change and forced migration is apparent. At the root of this crisis is the transformation of the rural economy that began under the U.S. occupation from 1915 to 1934. Haiti’s economy was re-engineered as an export platform to feed U.S. interests, from agriculture to banking. By the mid-20th century deforestation, soil erosion, insecure land tenure and population growth was driving an exodus from rural areas to cities. However, in the last 30 years these trends have accelerated. Under pressure to lower tariffs for imports from the United States, Haiti saw the local market for staple crops such as rice collapse. De-forestation accelerated, leading to a situation today where only 3% of Haiti’s tree canopy remains. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people have been internally displaced, forced into urban areas not equipped to handle the influx of people. Today, less than half of Port-au-Prince’s population was born there. Areas like Cite Soleil, with over 400,000 people, are overcrowded and under-resourced. The rapid growth of insecure building and overcrowding is the reason that the 2010 earthquake was so deadly, killing up to 300,000 people.
People migrating to major cities like Port-au-Prince, Gonaives, and Cap-Haitien are in effect moving to coastal areas. Here rising seas, more intense storms, and areas of extreme drought combine to create a recipe for recurrent disasters. Mudslides in 2004 killed tens of thousands of people near Gonaives, as treeless hillsides collapsed on the city. Every new storm brings with it the risk of crop failure, flooding and further soil erosion. Overcrowding has also increased the risks of disease. When UN troops introduced cholera in to Haiti in 2010, the disease spread rapidly, killing 9,400 individuals and infecting hundreds of thousands of people.
Interconnected with the process of internal displacement is outward migration. Nearly one million Haitians live in the Dominican Republic, primarily seeking work on sugar plantations and other agricultural positions. Tensions have resurfaced in recent years leading to mass expulsions of Haitians from the Dominican Republic, whose government denied citizenship to people of Haitian descent. Over the last thirty years, the United States has been the primary destination for Haitians with 650,000 people moving to the U.S. since 1986. However, tensions have mounted within the U.S. over immigration – leading to the suspension of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which covered over 50,000 Haitian migrants. Meanwhile, other countries with less restrictive policies are becoming a destination. It is estimated that close to 105,000 Haitians, equivalent to 1% of the population, moved to Chile alone last year.
The confluence of environmental degradation, climate change, and forced migration in Haiti is part of a global process driving people into insecure situations; exacerbating political conflicts and violence. There is no easy solution. Clearly, binding agreements to reduce emissions and move the planet away from a fossil fuel based economy is necessary. Even if this is acheived, the process must be inclusive. Alternative fuels are no panacea if accompanied by the expansion of extractive industries and agricultural practices that further drive forced migration. In the interim, people are already being forced to migrate.
International law is behind the times
The Refugee Convention of 1951 defines a refugee as a person who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country. The Convention does not cover people who are forced to migrate due to environmental reasons when they cross borders. The result is a variety of short-term measures, such as TPS in the United States, that affords very little protection to people whose status can change overnight. Within the United States, at least, there needs to be more effort to craft lasting solutions, that offer people who previously migrated an opportunity to seek permanent residency.
Currently there are efforts to recraft refugee and migrant laws. For example, the United Nations’ International Office of Migration is overseeing the creation of A Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The draft compact should be completed this year. However, enforcement mechanisms will be limited. In the United States and Europe in particular, migration is re-crafted as a crisis for the receiving country and thus there is resistance to any kind of binding obligations to accept more people. Given the current political environment it is not surprising that Trump administration withdrew the United States from the Compact negotiating process in December last year.
Until there are binding protections afforded to migrants as well as binding agreements to ameliorate the worst impacts of climate change, the world will face increasing migration, accompanied by ongoing political conflict. The current zero-sum, nationalistic orientation of so many, who view migrants as a threat rather than as fellow human beings in need of solidarity, continues to infect any effort for change. We must be better than this.
Given the pace of anti-immigration news over the past several months, the termination of another immigration initiative should hardly come as a surprise, but the announced wind-down over the next year of the Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) for Liberians hardly made a blip on the radar of national news. This change is further evidence of the current administration’s wanton disregard for the lives of those who come to the United States to carry on their lives with dignity and hope.
Rewire.News supplies answers to many questions in an excellent piece from last week titled: “What is Deferred Enforced Departure? It’s Complicated.” Here are a few answers to a couple of basic questions from that piece:
How do you receive DED status?
According to an official from USCIS, eligibility requirements for DED are up to the discretion of the president and any relevant requirements established by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Applicants for immigration benefits are subject to criminal and national security background checks, but DED differs from other benefits in that there is no formal application process.
“There is no form associated with DED. This means they do not apply for DED but are instead covered by DED,” a USCIS official said in an emailed statement to Rewire.News.
How many Liberian DED beneficiaries are there?
Because there is no application or registration for DED, the official number of Liberian DED recipients is unknown. According to USCIS, the maximum number of Liberians covered by DED would be approximately 3,600, the number of Liberians who held TPS when it was terminated in 2007. Roughly 840 Liberian DED recipients who applied for and currently have work authorization will be affected by Trump’s decision to end DED for Liberia.
The relatively small number of Liberian DED recipients means that the impact on the national level is minimal, but we must think about the context in order to understand why this case matters.
To begin with, Liberian history is directly linked to the U.S. institutions of slavery and colonialism dating to the pre-Civil War era. In the face of a growing population of freed black slaves in the abolitionist northern region of the United States, the American Colonization Society proposed to create a nation in Africa where freed slaves could live. This process of colonial settlement of a diverse population of freed slaves started in 1820 and resulted in conflict between a new ruling class of Americo-Liberians and the indigenous peoples of the region. The government was led by Americo-Liberians from the nation’s founding in 1847 until 1980. The other 95% of the population, descended from local ethnic groups rather than the descendants of settlers from the United States, was totally excluded from power.
A coup d’etat in 1980 marked a shift in political power. The resulting instability and struggle would lead to two civil wars and death of 250,000 people.
Although the country has been in a process of recovery for the past 15 years or so, an Ebola outbreak in 2014 created further pressure for people to leave. Economic restructuring has led Liberia to have one of the highest levels of foreign investment as a percentage of GDP in the world. The resulting growth of concessions to foreign extractive industries since 2006 has displaced tens of thousands of people. As a result of the wars and crises that have followed, many people have been traumatized and can hardly be blamed for seeking new beginnings elsewhere.
Since the political consequences of this U.S. colonial enterprise continue to affect Liberia even today, the United States should accept its responsibility to provide – if not reparations – at least a welcoming policy for any Liberian who seeks life in the United States.
Moreover, apart from the particular gravity of the Liberian case, there is another important pattern to observe in the immigration decisions made by this administration. All of the immigration program suspensions and wind-downs that have been announced in the past year – Central American Minors, TPS for many countries, DED for Liberia – share a common feature: they target immigrants who come from places other than Europe. #45, who has been married to two women from Eastern Europe, seems to be unconcerned about European migration to the United States and has even reportedly suggested that he would be happy with fewer people arriving from Haiti and Africa, and more from places like Norway. (DACA represents a minor deviation from this general practice, since 0.7% of Dreamers were born in Europe.)
Finally, if the President actually had any level of concern about a vulnerable population from a particular place, it would be within the power of the office to allow them to remain in the U.S. legally under DED. Any statement he makes to blame others for the brutal and inhumane immigration policies of his administration is simply empty rhetoric. And ending DED for Liberia serves as one more example of a pattern of abuse of some of the most resilient – yet vulnerable – among us. Our place is to stand alongside these neighbors and not to allow them to be forgotten when the next Tweet comes along.
Part IV of the Inspirational and Influential Women of the World Blog Series
Myriam Merlet was considered one of Haiti’s most prominent leaders and catalysts of the women’s rights movement. Merlet was one of the 300,000 people who perished in the 7.3 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010. As part of our series on inspirational and influential women, we take a look at her work as an advocate for gender equality and the rights of women facing sexual violence.
In the 70s, Merlet left Haiti and sought refuge in Canada, where she studied economics, women’s issues, feminist theory, and political sociology. Upon the completion of her studies, Merlet returned to Haiti in the mid 1980s, stating, “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. 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…as a Haitian woman, I must make an effort so that all together we can extricate ourselves from them [the problems].” Upon returning to Haiti, Merlet used her education to lead grassroots advocacy to promote the rights of Haitian women and worked with others to change the culturally accepted norm of gender-based violence.
Merlet was involved in an array of organizations seeking to create and enforce gender equality. In Merlet’s early advocacy years, she founded EnfoFanm, an organization that sought to raise global awareness about the challenges Haitian women face, namely the history and continued use of sexual assault by government soldiers, police, and criminal gangs as means of controlling and oppressing women. EnfoFanm also led a campaign to name streets in Port-au-Prince after famous Haitian women to celebrate and commemorate their work as well as elevate the status of women within Haitian culture. Later in 2006, Merlet took part in creating the Coordination Nationale pour le Plaidoyer des Femmes [National Coordination for Women’s Advocacy] and served as a spokesperson for the organization to fight against sexism within the public sector.
One of Merlet’s greatest accomplishments was leading the efforts to reclassify rape. Prior to 2005, rape was considered a “crime of passion” or an “offense against morals” in Haiti. Rape victims and their families seldom received monetary compensation from the perpetrators, and had no hope for a legal sentencing or justice for the victim. In large part thanks to the work of Merlet and many other women activists, rape has been reclassified as a criminal offense. However, there remains a lack of a precise definition of rape as well as strong judicial system to uphold and enforce the criminalization of rape. As a result, many rapes continue to be overlooked by authorities and there is a stark lack of rape prosecutions, leaving victims vulnerable and susceptible to further gender-based violence.
From 2006 to 2008 Merlet acted as the Chief of Staff to Haiti’s Ministry for Gender and the Rights of Women. There, she continued to promote equal rights and end gender discrimination and violence. Though in a government position, Merlet continued to participate in grassroots advocacy and worked closely with the Minister for the Coordination of Women and Women’s Rights, Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue. Together, Merlet and Lassegue opened the first Haiti Sorority Safe House and V-Day Safe House, both of which act as safe houses for women who are victims of domestic violence. At both of these safe houses women can access medical, legal, and psychological aid as well as gain life skills through the business and computer training courses offered. There continues to be an overwhelming lack of safe houses and aid offered to victims of domestic and gender-based violence. Merlet and Lassegue’s work is carried on by organizations like Fanm Deside, but more needs to be done.
The earthquake served as a reminder of how crucial the work in which Merlet was involved continues to be. A report by Amnesty International stated, “the displacements and living conditions in the displaced persons camps have increased the risk of facing gender-based violence for women and girls, while the destruction of police stations and court houses during the 2010 earthquake further weakened that state’s ability to provided adequate protection.” Women and girls living in the camps with poor lighting at night, unsecure tents, and limited police presence continue to be increasingly susceptible to rape and gender-based violence. Furthermore, the child sex ring run by United Nations Peacekeepers exacerbated the sexual abuse women and girls faced in the camps in Port-au-Prince.
The work Merlet started for the promotion, empowerment, and protection of Haitian women’s rights at the grassroots level remains imperative. The UN’s debacle illustrates why women and local leaders must be involved in the disaster relief process and the need to bring female issues to the forefront of government policy in the hopes of strengthening the justice system to deter rape and gender-based violence as well as provided justice for female victims.
Up Next: Inspirational and Influential Women of the World: Sister Pauline Quinn coming April 20th
United Nations Commission on the Status of Women: The Need for Gender Parity within Human Rights Bodies
For an introduction to the Commission on the Status of Women read here
Uruguay, Sweden, Liechtenstein, and The Gambia sponsored a panel entitled Closing the Gender Gap: Achieving Gender Parity in UN Human Rights Bodies at the United Nations Conference on the Status of Women (CSW), which examined the continuation of historical male domination within international human rights bodies through an intercultural feminist view point. Female inclusion within the UN, as well as other international human rights bodies is crucial because these entities must accurately represent humanity if they are to be considered legitimate and effective. There is a current lack of considering gender as a critical issue when discussing human rights. This creates a problem when analyzing human rights violations such as sexual and gender-based violence, human trafficking, and modern slavery – all of which disproportionately affect women and girls due to global, cultural, and societal norms.
The Gqual Campaign was created to accurately report female representation within international human rights bodies as well as to promote female nominations after they found that, “women are underrepresented in virtually all international bodies for monitoring and developing international law, human rights, and international relations.” In 2015, Gqual conducted a study illuminating the stark lack of female representation in positions of power within international human rights bodies. Women occupied a mere 17% of all positions within regional and international tribunals. For example, within the five international tribunals, only 13 of the 72 judges were female. The lack of women nominated to international tribunals and monitoring bodies stems from historic exclusion of women based on cultural and societal norms.
Traditionally, women are secluded to the private sphere as caregivers, homemakers, domestic workers, etc., while men dominate the public sphere in government, trade, work abroad, etc. affording males the opportunity to exchange ideas, become confident in their abilities, and achieve economic independence. Through the continued enforcement of traditional roles, females are shut out from society and sequestered into ‘female only spaces.’ This practice dampens women’s experience, confidence, and voices, leaving women without the ability or confidence to enter male dominated spaces in order to participate in discussions and decision-making. Without female participation at a local level, there is little hope that women will gain the skills and experience required to sit on international human rights bodies in the future.
Furthermore, the continued trend of minimal or no female education exacerbates women’s inability to be nominated to international human rights bodies. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) conducted a study on women living in the rural mountains of Nepal, finding that a lack of formal education for girls resulted in a disproportionate number of women unable to speak the national language. Instead, the majority of mountain women solely spoke local dialects. This phenomenon is replicated in rural communities throughout the world. Lack of female education not only prohibits women from gaining the expertise needed to sit on international human rights bodies, but also bars them from participating in local decision-making meetings held in the national language, further silencing them and excluding them from important discussions.
All international human rights bodies must adopt a gender sensitive participatory approach in order to enhance women’s empowerment and inclusion in decision-making entities. ICIMOD indicates that the enforcement of traditional gender norms silences women, making them uncomfortable and unwilling to participate in male dominated decision-making bodies. The first step to achieve a gender participatory approach in international human rights entities is to create local female groups that allow women to freely discuss ideas and experiences and to propose solutions affording women the opportunity to gain experience in decision-making entities and gain confidence in their abilities. Next, women must be integrated into the existing international human rights bodies with the understanding that women offer unique and valid experiences, viewpoints, and solutions; and therefore must be viewed as equal members.
The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women: the Unequal Effects of Climate Change on Rural Women
This year, the United Nations held the 62nd annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in order to gather the international community to discuss the importance and necessity for inclusion and empowerment of women on a global level and to propose strategies to enact positive change. The first CSW was held in 1947, two years after the inception of the United Nations, with the purpose of creating international conventions and standards to change existing discriminatory male-oriented legislation as well as to foster global awareness on the legitimacy of women’s issues.
Each year CSW adopts a theme based on the current global realities of women. The theme this year was Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls. As the name suggests, there is an array of issues that affect rural women and girls. This post focuses on a particular panel of interest: Harnessing Women’s Rights to Natural Resources to Advance the Status of Rural Women.
Many assume that climate change affects people equally or affects them based on geographic location; however, this is not the case. Women are disproportionately impacted by climate change across the globe. This is often easier to see and understand in rural areas. Like in urban areas, rural women typically act as the primary caregivers and providers for the household. Rural women face unique challenges in this role in regards to collecting water and food. Due to the increased regularity and length of droughts, women are forced to travel further distances to gather water. Irregular weather patterns caused by climate change can lead to crop and livestock failure, forcing women to find alternative sources of nutrition. Both of these activities have physical tolls on women’s bodies and reduce their ability to actively participate in the formal economy.
In contrast, though urban women often act as the primary caregivers within homes as well, they do not face the same challenges rural women do when gathering necessary household resources. The unequal affect of climate change on urban women is better understood when examining the intersectionality between the lack of socioeconomic empowerment and female participation in the environmental decision making process. Globally, women are more likely than men to experience poverty, often rendering them reliant on community networks and social services. This makes it difficult for women to recover from natural disasters that affect the infrastructure, job market, and housing.
Along with the primary impacts of natural disasters (i.e. lack of shelter, food, water, etc.), women face more secondary impacts, including sexual and gender-based violence, loss or reduction of economic opportunities, and an increased workload. A prime example of this is their susceptibility to human trafficking post-natural disaster due to an increased vulnerability, need for economic stability, and lack of options. Further contributing to female economic disadvantages, the UN Women found that the female unpaid workload is more likely to increase following natural disasters because women are most likely to be tasked with caring for the ill or injured while the men continue to work, further limiting their economic opportunities. Girls were also more likely than boys to be taken out of school to aid with the domestic chores after a disaster, resulting in a lack of universal primary education and further disadvantaging females.
Given the unequal impact of climate change on women, there is an obvious need to include them in climate change decision-making bodies. However, the average representation of females in national and global climate negotiating bodies is currently less than 30%. Women, especially in rural areas, are more knowledgeable about local water systems and crop growth and are regularly forced to find alternative solutions to increase water and food availability by finding new areas to drill wells, using of modified seeds, etc., highlighting their ability to actively contribute to disaster planning and recovery. Furthermore, women account for 50% of the world’s population, and the bodies responsible for climate change response should therefore more accurately represent humanity.
In order to increase female representation in climate change decision-making, governmental and intergovernmental institutions must codify regulations enforcing gender equality in not only the environmental ministries but also gender and economic ministries. This will ensure equal representation, create a shift in cultural and societal norms that portray women as victims as opposed to equals, and create intersectionality between government efforts to address climate change and to empower women in order to make the link between climate change and gender.