Author Disclaimer: I do not identify as a disabled person. I chose the Q&A format to let Soinette Désir speak.
In 2003, Soinette Désir, along with other women, founded the nonprofit organization Union for Women with Reduced Mobility in Haiti (Union des Femmes à Mobilité Réduite d’Haïti, UFMORH) to advocate for the rights of women and girls with disabilities.
Since 2018, the Caribbean nation has been witnessing a series of social uprisings in response to increased fuel prices and alleged government corruption. Between September and December 2019, the protests paralyzed the country, closing schools and businesses, and shutting down transportation links.
I went to Port-au-Prince in December to report on the country’s feminist movement and spoke with several members leading the fight from different sectors. I talked to Désir about the long struggle girls and women with disabilities are facing in Haiti, and the impact of the country’s uprising on their lives.
Chantal Flores: Can you tell us about the work that you do here in Haiti?
Soinette Désir: I’m the coordinator of UFMORH and a human rights trainer. I do advocacy work for girls and women who are living with disabilities, and focus on awareness and sensitivity. Women often don’t know their rights when they are victims of violence.
We’ve also noticed that they are scared of their disability, their disability is a fear for them. They are scared of going out. We do this basic work so that they know their rights before going to other organizations. We work on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) that Haiti has signed but it’s not applied. We also work with the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Across the country, we work with the press to educate workers and the population on rights of disabled people. We raise awareness on both the importance of human rights and the rights of people with disability.
CF: Why is it important for you to do this work?
SD: I got typhoid fever when I was 11 years old and it affected one of my legs. I had family support, and my family didn’t see my disability as a reason to not have access to education. Despite my parents’ efforts, I’ve always faced discrimination and stigmatization because of my disability. I started to notice how many women with disabilities didn’t have any family support and the government itself didn’t respect our rights. I told myself that it was necessary to have an organization to address the issues and needs of women and girls with disabilities.
CF: Can you share a little bit more about the stigmas disabled girls and women face in the country?
SD: Her disability is her first limitation. Their disability is seen as an obstacle to not get married or have a partner. There are also cultural beliefs that put them at risk. There’s a myth that when you have sexual intercourse with a disabled woman, you will be lucky in life. Or people link the disability with the parents’ sins and treat them badly. Women and girls with disabilities are seen as objects and are treated badly. There are people who believe they can abuse them because they don’t see them as human beings. We are trying to change these beliefs.
CF: What are some of the challenges disabled women face in Haiti?
SD: Generally, the rights of women and girls with disability in Haiti are not respected. They face educational, social, and economical problems, and have no political participation. They have no access to justice. They can be victims of violence but they can’t file a complaint, for instance.
Women with disabilities face a lack of communication because their needs are not being considered. The government is not doing anything despite signing the CRPD. For example, a woman who is deaf should be able to communicate in sign language but there are no translators in the institutions. If a deaf woman is victim of violence, she cannot explain what happened to her, and even if she can, she will be bullied, mocked by authorities. Or when there’s a crisis, such as a natural catastrophe, some people take advantage of this hard situation to rape some of the women. During the flood, for example, people have to be relocated or receive care, and authorities and officials should be aware of the special needs we have. People with disability should also participate in the strategic plans.
We would like for the government to become responsible and uphold the convention it has signed.
CF: Did the recent protests in the country specifically affect disabled women and girls?
SD: It affected them psychologically because they stay at home. They can’t go out, they don’t have access to water and food. Some of them couldn’t go to their medical appointments for follow ups. It also affected them economically because some of them have small businesses and couldn’t continue working, like other women across the country.
CF: What kind of support does UFMORH offer during periods of crisis?
SD: We provided psychological support and pressured the government to address the problems we were facing. We’ve always supported each other and organized activities, but we didn’t have enough equipment or means to do bigger things.
CF: What are some of the things that you are proud that UFMORH is achieving?
SD: We’re bringing more attention to the situation of women and girls with disabilities. Other women organizations are recognizing us and are now more inclusive. A few disabled women are also part of other women organizations. They are now participating more in the community. It’s just a few people, but it’s step by step.