Response: June 2017 Issue

Empowering Women Through Technology

Organizacion Para El Desarrollo De Las Mujeres Inmigrante Haitianas Y Sus Familiares lifts up Haitian women immigrants living in the Dominican Republic.

Empowering Women Through Technology
Christ Marc Loissant teaches a computer hardware class to Elantine Cezaire, Barbara Etienne and Shelove Ferdinand. Photo:

Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island, a land mass slightly smaller than the state of South Carolina, but the two countries are very different. Once unified land inhabited by the Taino people, the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 and the warfare, disease and slavery brought by the Spaniards killed many of the island’s original inhabitants as Spain colonized the island, calling it Santo Domingo. With the lost indigenous population, Spain began bringing enslaved people from Africa to work the farms and plantations. Spain ceded the western end of the island to France in 1697, setting up the countries that would become Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Haiti became independent after a slave revolt in 1804, and the Dominican Republic overthrew the Spanish in 1821, unified with Haiti in 1822, and won independence from Haiti in 1844 after the Dominican Independence War.

Under French rule, Haiti’s enslaved population reached about 500,000, compared to the Dominican Republic’s 60,000. Though today the population of both countries is around 10.4 million, Haiti is geographically smaller and more mountainous; the Dominican Republic is the greener and rainier side of the island, with significantly more forests. Both countries have a history of military and dictatorial rule, but the Dominican Republic has benefitted from more stability. Birth and death rates are lower in the Dominican Republic, as are the cases of and deaths from HIV and AIDS. Haiti’s maternal death and infant mortality rates are more than double that of the Dominican Republic’s, while the Dominican Republic’s gross domestic product, literacy rates, and life expectancy are significantly higher than Haiti’s. Haiti’s population is 95 percent black, and the Dominican Republic is predominantly mixed race, at 73 percent, with 16 percent white and 11 percent black.

The historical conflict and the environmental, economic and race differences set up a strained coexistence between the two countries.

Discrimination and opportunity

When I arrived in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, I drove through the old, colonial part of town and was immediately charmed by the old architecture, small streets and street life—people walking, talking, children playing. Because it was election day, most of the businesses were closed, and sales of alcohol had been suspended for 48 hours.

The next morning I flagged a taxi to head to Organizacion para el Desarrollo de las Mujeres Inmigrante Haitianas y sus Familiares, or ODEMIHF, a United Methodist Women-supported nonprofit working to support Haitian immigrant women and their families in the Dominican Republic, focusing on personal and community development, human rights advocacy, education, organizational support, health care and community action. We headed east, with the ocean to our right, into the suburbs of Santo Domingo.

The buildings we passed were simple one and two story cement homes and shops. We turned off the main, paved street onto a quiet dirt road between homes and then wandered for a bit—the driver got a little lost, as street signs were scarce. We stopped and asked a few locals how to get to ODEMIHF, and they knew exactly where to send us.

The building was surrounded by a wrought iron fence and heavy gate, which was open. I was greeted by Christ (pronounced Kreest) Marc Louissaint, a young Haitian teacher at the center. He also served as my translator. He teaches a computer skills class at the computer technology center, a program supported by United Methodist Women’s A Call to Prayer and Self-Denial grant. He’s been living in the Dominican Republic for about six years, has finished his studies and is waiting on his computer science license.

“Computers are amazing! That’s why I decided to study computers,” Louissaint said. “Most people who use computers don’t know the story of how computers got here today.”

The computer classes he teaches begin right with the basics of learning parts of the computer.

“It’s much easier for students to move forward if they know what the computers are about.”

He walked me through the computer lab on our way to director Carline Vital’s office. There were about 10 computers with several young Haitian women working on them, waiting for the rest of the students to arrive and class to start.

Vital has been working with the Santo Domingo community for 20 years. She’s responsible for the overall operations of ODEMIHF.

“Haitians in the Dominican Republic face many problems, especially if they lack papers. When they are undocumented it’s hard to find a good job,” Vital said. “Many work informal jobs like in sugar cane plantations. It doesn’t give them the ability to help their families. Because of discrimination, even if Haitian immigrants have the knowledge or skills it’s hard to find jobs. Many work in call centers that are foreign-owned.”

Almost 460,000 Haitian immigrants are currently living in the Dominican Republic according to a 2012 government survey, which constitutes about 90 percent of the country’s total immigrant population. In 2013 a Dominican court ruled that the children of undocumented Haitian immigrants are no longer entitled to citizenship, going back to 1929, making an estimated 200,000 people in the country stateless. Amnesty International estimates that 40,000 people, including unaccompanied children, have been deported from the Dominican Republic to Haiti between August 2015 and May 2016. Even before the ruling Haitians were among the most marginalized in the country, living in poverty, working menial jobs with low wages and facing constant racism.

“The goal of the computer training is to empower the Haitian immigrant community,” said Vital, “to empower Haitian women in the Dominican Republic and help them use communication information technology.”

Sheelove Ferdinand is a student in the computer technology class. She’s 23 and the oldest of seven children. Her parents live in New Jersey. When I met her, she’d been living in Santo Domingo for about eight months.

“I am living with my cousins and am learning Spanish,” she said. The official languages of Haiti are French and Haitian Creole. In the Dominican Republic, it’s Spanish. “Now I’m about to finish my training in Spanish. I’ll receive my diploma and be able to start studying at university.

“It’s really hard for a young Haitian woman to live in the Dominican Republic because the cost of living is really expensive—to afford housing, food, clothes,” she continued. “Sometimes people in the Dominican Republic are aggressive. They can be racist. They have no respect for Haitian people.”

The term “Haitian” itself is seen as an insult, said Louissaint.

“In Haiti I didn’t experience racism. When I came to the Dominican Republic it was really different, to meet people who are going to act crazy when they see you, and they don’t even know you. Once they know you’re Haitian, they criticize you.”

Notions of black inferiority are still predominant in the Dominican Republic. Racial classification is still included on country’s driver’s licenses, with different terms to describe different shades of skin, such as white, mulatto, mestizo, Indio and black. A statue of Christopher Columbus still stands in the central square of Santo Domingo’s historic district in Parque Colon.

“Here in the Dominican Republic, life can be different for Haitian women,” said Julie Point du Jour, a 15-year-old student in the computer technology class. “If you’re working life can be better, but if you’re not working, life can be difficult. For a Haitian woman to work in the Dominican Republic you need to have your Dominican ID. It’s not easy to get a Dominican ID. They aren’t really giving out IDs for Haitians.

“Many Dominicans do not like Haitians,” she said. “When I speak with fellow Haitians we speak in Creole, and Dominicans look down on that. I used to meet Dominicans who don’t like Haitians at all. For our color, they say we are ugly.”

Building skills and confidence

“We also have Dominicans who like Haitian people,” said Point du Jour. “To get respect you have to respect yourself first.”

ODEMIHF works to give women skills not just to improve their lives but improve their confidence.

“The organization is growing because of the situation in the Dominican Republic for Haitian women. We try to help them build their esteem, to help them help themselves,” said Vital. “Change will happen in the community because this computer program is helping Haitian women immigrants know about and learn technology. The cost is free, so it makes it available to more people.”

The free classes take place four days a week for four hours each day. The sessions last about three months. The program started in January 2016.

“We’d been waiting a long time for an opportunity to do it, and we were thrilled when United Methodist Women sent us a budget to help create a computer and IT program,” said Vital. United Methodist Women has been a longtime partner of ODEMIHF, with members’ Mission Giving helping not just the computer program but other education programs, such as sexual health.

Students in the computer course begin by learning the parts of a computer. They open up the computer to learn about the hardware, the processor and what’s inside.

“I’ve learned a lot in my class. When we had to open the computer case I was afraid because I’ve never done that before. The computer case has a lot of stuff inside, and I didn’t really know all the pieces. The teacher took a lot of time and passion to show us. Now I know what’s inside a computer case,” Ferdinand said.

From learning the parts of a computer and their function, students move on to basics of how to turn the computer on and about basic operating systems, then onto programs like Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel. The class teaches Internet use, file saving and sharing and e-mail.

“First we start teaching how to use the computer, then word processing, presentation software, typing, Internet, cloud technology, e-mail,” said Louissaint. “I plan on teaching how to create blogs as well, so the students can share how they are living and what they want to do. We are also thinking about making podcasts, an online radio broadcast. We also have lessons on graphic design and social networks.”

Students in the class are women ages 15-25, and the program hopes to begin reaching out to younger students. The organization hires Haitian women as well.

“Part of this project is to empower us women,” said Ferdinand. “I am feeling empowered. Because now I don’t need the help of a man to use a computer. I am feeling more confident.”

Point du Jour agreed.

“I feel good coming to this class. I’ve learned a lot of new ways to use the computer. What I like the most is the way the teacher always takes time to answer our questions and teach us how to do things. I keep learning. I keep growing,” she said.

Partners in mission

A Call to Prayer and Self-Denial is an annual observance during which United Methodist Women members and friends reflect on the gospel of Christ, pray together and make an offering to mission with women, children and youth in response to God’s love and grace. In 2016, the offering received from the observance supported national and international programs that empower women to gain the resources they need to earn a living wage to help them take care of themselves and their loved ones. In 2017, the offering received will support programming and advocacy for the health of mothers and their children. ODEMIHF is one of these programs.

“I want to thank United Methodist Women members for the help they are giving us, because educating Haitian immigrant women in the Dominican Republic is important, positive work, and we appreciate the support,” said Vital. “This program is helping Haitian immigrant women know about and learn technology, and I think that they will bring change to their community.

“United Methodist Women is doing good work around the world, helping people have better lives. Keep doing the good work,” she said. “We’re happy to work with them for a just and equitable world. It’s beautiful work.”

Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic face many of the same untruths as dark-skinned migrants in the United States: They take citizens’ jobs, they’re criminals, they put stress on social systems. And just as in the United States, immigrants in the Dominican Republic are looking to better their lives and families and contribute to their communities.

“I want to finish my studies in primary, secondary. Then I want to go to college. I want to work so I can help people,” said Point du Jour.

“This program changed me,” said Ferdinand. “Before I always needed someone else to help me with a computer. Now I can do that myself. I can send e-mails, write letters, save my documents online. I am feeling proud of myself.”

Nile Sprague is a photojournalist based in Mendocino, California. Tara Barnes is editor of response.

Posted or updated: 6/2/2017 12:00:00 AM