We are in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic where we have just held a seminar for women human rights defenders from the Caribbean. There were 24 women participating, from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, the Bahamas and Trinidad and Tobago.
It was great to have a variety of human rights organizations present, with representatives working on women’s rights; migrants’ rights; lesbian and gay rights; housing rights; women defending the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS; and working to secure justice for victims of police violence and their families. The main goal of the seminar was to provide a space for the women to share their experiences and provide tools to help enable their work.
For us and, we think, all the participants, the most rewarding parts of the seminar were those where the women were able to recount their own stories. We were very moved by the personal testimonies of several of the participants who have themselves experienced violence or discrimination, and which has made them all the more determined to defend the rights of others who find themselves in a similar situation.
A representative from rom the Jamaica Forum for Lesbian, All-sexuals and Gays spoke of her work supporting the gay community in her country and of the hatred and violence it faces. As part of her job, she accompanies victims of homophobic attacks to police stations from where they are nearly always turned away and she herself sometimes receives threats too.
“Some people ask why I keep fighting, that’s because I believe in change”, she said. “Some of us are prepared to be martyrs because we believe in change.”
Sirana Dolis, from the Movimiento de Mujeres Dominico-Haitianas (Movement of Dominico-Haitian Women) talked of her work to defend fellow members of the Dominico-Haitian community, who suffer widespread discrimination from the authorities and face attempts to have their Dominican nationality removed.
She is called a “traitor” for her advocacy on behalf of Dominico-Haitians and she herself runs the risk of expulsion from the country as the authorities refuse to recognize her Dominican nationality. “I was born here; I won’t stop struggling to defend the rights of other like me.”
All felt that women human rights defenders in the Caribbean face a lack of visibility and legitimacy and recounted the different challenges and obstacles they face in their work. Those working to further women’s rights are often attacked and stigmatized: “we are called ‘men haters’ and ‘male bashers’,” said Dr Sandra Dean-Patterson of the Bahamas Crisis Centre.
They were all proud to consider themselves human rights defenders and despite the challenges they face, they feel their work has an important impact. Lucia Antoine, from the Haitian organization Fanm Décidé (Determined Women) told how women in her community who have suffered sexual violence receive much better attention from police and medical authorities when accompanied by members of her organization. Several of the women have been involved in shaping legislation in their countries which protects the rights of women, although they all acknowledged that laws that aren’t respected and implemented are worthless.
They all expressed the need to create networks to support each others’ work and to provide solidarity. “We need to empower organizations, give them tools of empowerment, such as the ones given today,” said Joyce Hewett from the Jamaican organization Women Inc.
The women were all enthusiastic participants and they left with a shared commitment to build from this initial contact and to try to create a Caribbean-wide network of women human rights defenders. It was a privilege for us to be able to share in this experience with so many women human rights defenders from the Caribbean and we leave the region with renewed energy and conviction to help support their important work.