Haiti – Feminist Series 5, In conversation with Paulette Joseph
During his campaign for presidency of Haiti, Michel Martelly made education was of his priorities. Once elected he quickly established the “Program for Universal Free and Obligatory Education (Programme de scolarisation universelle gratuite et obligatoire – PSUGO)” PSUGO was supposed to increase access to education for millions of primary school children through the allocation of funds for first and second grades. The amounts for public schools are tiny at $6 per student and $90 for private students who are by far the majority. However an investigation into PSUGO by Haiti Grassroots Watch found the programme seriously lacking and questioned the figures claimed by the government.
Book supplies, food and other resources have not been forthcoming. Rea Dol of SOPUDEP school explained that even where funds have been received, it is only for the first two grades and only for a selected number of children rather than all of primary school as promised. Compounding the problems with resources is the postponement of school until October, made just a few days before September classes were due to start thereby putting even more pressure on teachers and students to complete the curriculum by the end of the year.
Many schools, both free and private are struggling with decrepit buildings and minimum resources. The majority of parents are struggling to pay fees and in schools like SOPUDEP which provide free education they are over subscribed despite the lack of resources with class sizes as much as 60/70 children and some as high as 100.
Prior to the now extended summer holidays I spoke with educator and community activist, Paulette Joesph at the Excelsior School which she founded in 2003. Since then, Haiti and Paulette have gone through numerous crises. The 2004 coup in which President Aristide was forcibly removed and flown to Central African Republic. The violence unleashed against members of Lavalas in which hundreds were murdered and thousands went into exile or hid in the countryside. Those like Paulette who remained in the capital did so with fear in their hearts. Then in January 2010, the earthquake struck, and soon after the cholera epidemic, floods and hurricanes. In spite of all of these challenges she has managed to remain strong, the school is still going and she continues to work with women in her community.
Paulette, like her friends, Rea Dol of SOPUDEP and Roselaine Derival Fabre of Mojub, an adult literacy and kindergarten school, began as ca community activist working with women in their communities many of whom including Rea and Paulette were or are single mothers raising children on their own.
How and when did you become involved in community work.
PJ: I first started working with both men and women in my community when we organized as KADSK, a commune or village solidarity to keep our community clean and campaign for clean water and electricity. This was in 1991. At that time President Aristide and Preval were in government and they helped us a lot in our commune. After the coup against President Aristide things were very difficult for all of us.
SE: Why did you move from a mixed community organization to working solely with women?
PJ: You know in Haiti many working class women don’t have money to send their children to school. They don’t have jobs or business yet they have to take care of their children by themselves. 70% of Haitian women are raising their children on their own as so many men do not take responsibility for their children. But there is a paradox because the men leave when the child comes and then the women look for another man in the hope that he will change their life and bring them out of misery. But in most cases this does not happen.
I saw the way women were living miserable lives and said, we need to start an organization where women can defend themselves and create something for themselves. This was in 1996 and we called ourselves Organization Fanm Vanyan [OFAV] meaning organization of strong women. And you know women work hard and they know how to work together but they need to have respect and dignity. One day a women in the organization told me her husband had punched her in the face. Her eye was swollen and I said no this is not right so it was the organization’s work to explain and to educate women on their rights in the house and what to expect. We were able to come together as women and speak about many things but always we found that it was our children that were our greatest greatest concern as many of them did not have fathers. So it is from here that I had the idea to open a school for poor children and those being raised without fathers, that is for the women in our organization.
SE: Before we go on to talk about the school, can I ask you to tell us a little more about yourself?
PJ: Well we are talking about women living on their own, I was married in 1980 but have been divorced since 1990. I have two sons, my first son died when he was six months. Now I live with my mother and my youngest son and my only focus is my work. I think this is important for my son because I don’t want him to grow up with violence in the house, I don’t want him to have to live with someone who disrespects his mother. So I take care of my family by myself and spend time with my son. Every time President Aristide asks me, how is your son, and in this way he gives us some advice and focus on him because in Haiti it is hard to stay on your own.
I believe some women feel they need to have a man to take care of them but I do not feel like this, I am not afraid to stay on my own. Our organization meets every last Sunday of the month and I always try to tell other women that they don’t have to depend on anyone but themselves, they can live by themselves. No women has to accept violence. If you have 100 $Haitian [500gds or $11] you can make something for yourself. You can survive. But let me say this, one problem we have in Haiti which we have to be careful is HIV, I think this is very dangerous for women and children because of the men who do not protect themselves.
SE: Speaking of health, what about cholera in your community and the school?
PJ: Cholera in Haiti is now the biggest problem. We have had a lot of cholera amongst our children. But we also have to talk about MINUSTAH [UN force in Haiti] who are responsible for cholera in Haiti. It started in their camp by the Artibonite River which was contaminated by the shit. This is how cholera spread in Haiti. Imagine please if the Haitian army went to the US to help them and the Haitian army then spread a sickness like cholera. What do you think the Haitian government is supposed to do if not to take responsibility. So the UN must take responsibility and compensate all the victims of cholera. But you know we are a Black nation and they think they can forget us. We were the first black country to get independence and we are still paying for that. But you see also our government is silent, they say nothing about cholera or MINUSTAH.
SE: Can I ask you about the present government in Haiti?
PJ: [Laughs… If you have a good government. A government which represents the people then for example if you are a business and you come to my country you must pay tax. If you come to my country and you want to employ people you must pay them a good wage like $8 /9 a day. But here nobody pays tax, nothing, The government gives them the freedom to do what they want.
SE: I would like to end by asking you specifically about the school.
PJ: I started the school in 2003 with 50 children most of them the children of the women in OFAV. We have kindergarten aged 3-5 years and primary from 6-12 years. Now I have 500 children altogether. As you can see our building is very small and very crowded and we need so many repairs especially when it rains, it is terrible. But this is Haiti and that is how things are [laughs] we struggle but we have hope.
We had to end our conversation rather abruptly as children were changing over classes and it was no longer possible to hear ourselves speak amidst the chatter and laughter of 500 3-12 year olds!