The Vineyard recently received an honored guest and a living historical figure to its shores. On Wednesday, the Honorable Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue, Haiti’s minister of women’s affairs and rights since 2006, came to serve as guest of honor at a weekend-long celebration of solidarity between the island of Hispaniola and Martha’s Vineyard, sponsored by the Vineyard organizations Peacequilts and MV Fish Farm for Haiti.
A pioneer of the women’s rights movement in Haiti, Ms. Lassegue has garnered considerable support for her pioneering role in passing progressive legislation on domestic labor. Recently Ms. Lassegue was at the helm of a revolutionary movement to push through laws regulating domestic laborers. Previously, domestic employees were subject to the whim of their employers; they are now legally protected against excessive hours and abuse. Furthermore, the new legislation makes it possible for many of these workers, 90 per cent of whom are women, to pursue education (the literacy rate of women is 47.8 per cent). Now the minister is fighting in parliament to pass legislation that would compel paternal responsibility in the region, where roughly 80 per cent of children are not acknowledged by their fathers and an overwhelming number of families are headed by females.
At a talk at the Oak Bluffs library, Ms. Lassegue laid out her politics and the inspiration behind her work: “Haitian women are not sufficiently acknowledged or valued, and they are pillars of their communities,” she conveyed through a translator. She described her grassroots investigatory work meeting with Haitian women as trying to “understand what their reality is.”
Her ministry is also concerned in minimizing the day-to-day stereotyping of women, in a country which has long been dominated by males in the public sphere. A documentary screened at the event showed a workshop for textbook publishing companies, trying to help them minimize their implicit stereotyping. Ms. Lassegue mentioned in the documentary that yet another change she is pursuing is the defeminization of poverty and AIDS.
While the library talk served as an educational presentation, much of the weekend was dedicated to celebrating solidarity and sorority, two themes which the minister said were at the heart of her work. The weekend’s events included a three-day tennis tournament at the Martha’s Vineyard Resort in Oak Bluffs and a gala reception for the MV Fish Farm for Haiti’s seventh annual Haitian Art Sale benefit, which featured live music from Haitian artist Didi Jeremie.
An example of the solidarity and sorority that Jocelyn Lassegue hopes to encourage is the Island’s own Margaret Penicaud, who in 1998, began the Fish Farm for Haiti, a project which would pledge itself to increase self-sufficiency and educational resources in the town of Lilavois, Haiti, near the capital city Port-au-Prince. “We are, for the most part, women helping women,” Mrs. Penicaud said. Since the group was founded 11 years ago, local fund-raising events, private donations and on-site work have contributed to the beginning of construction on a new school and living quarters, a newly drilled well, five ponds where tilapia are being harvested, new vegetable gardens, and is now currently going towards developing a chicken coop.
Since the time when Mrs. Penicaud began the project, little has changed for the economic welfare of Haiti, which still ranks as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, the region is still deserving of attention and aid. “We need some good press for Haiti . . . there’s so much bad press,” Mrs. Penicaud lamented. “We need to spark an interest in our neighbors. Haiti is only a two-hour flight from Miami.” Although this year’s benefit did not generate the donations it has in the past, Mrs. Penicaud called it a success in the context of the national and local economic hardship.