Citizen engagement and human rights in Haiti – An interview with Amber Lynn Munger

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” Equitas came to Haiti after the earthquake, working with human rights organizations and asked them, “what does Haiti need to rise up, to recover from the earthquake” and the human rights organizations’ response was, “it’s not new buildings which are going to change the situation, it’s Haitians who are becoming engaged in changing their own country, Haitians understanding their rights and able to create that Haiti we have dreamed about since Independence.” Amber Lynn Munger (American Jewish World Service, Equitas funding partner in Haiti) – Amber Lynn Munger oversees all the grant making in Haiti for American Jewish World Service (AJWS). In Haiti AJWS has three different portfolios: natural resource rights, civil and political rights and sexual health and rights. – Highlights from the interview : Equitas: You have been collaborating with Equitas since 2012. Why does AJWS work with Equitas? ALM: We initially started working with Equitas after the earthquake. Equitas came to Haiti after the earthquake, working with human rights organizations and asked them, “what does Haiti need to rise up, to recover from the earthquake” and the human rights organizations’ response was, “it’s not new buildings which are going to change the situation, it’s Haitians who are becoming engaged in changing their own country, Haitians understanding their rights and able to create that Haiti we have dreamed about since Independence”. There was a real opportunity because there was a lot of interest, spaces were opening up after the earthquake and there was an opportunity to engage people in ways they hadn’t been previously. Equitas:  What are some of the benefits which AJWS partners have seen from that collaboration on this particular program? ALM: Let me first talk about the benefits that AJWS has seen. For us, the Citizen Engagement Program has been a success on many different levels. When we look at citizen engagement, that is very broad, but in terms of creating a base of human rights, with a reference to Haiti, they were limited, really, in how organizations understood and incorporated human rights into their own practices. The Citizen Engagement Program also incorporated smaller organizations which could really have an impact in their own communities, which already had an impact in their communities but their idea of making an impact was limited to a developmental framework; so it was limited to small kinds of interventions, small kinds of one-off projects that weren’t really contributing to any kind of measurable change, visible change within the community. People had good intentions and had interest in the community but their knowledge of human rights and how to use it as a tool was extremely limited or didn’t exist at all. So what does all of this mean? When all of these organizations come together through the Citizen Engagement Program, the program has allowed, has created the space for them to explore and question the ideas they had about rights and enable them to see the limitations in the way they were looking at rights and the way they were looking at the world in their own work. So it means that in spaces that were very closed to marginalized groups like the peasants or gay men: we all knew that segregation existed in society, or that there were taboos and those were carried on in human rights leaders. The Citizen Engagement Program created the space where you could challenge those unspoken assumptions which existed, even within human rights leaders. And so the result of that has been that, speaking of LGBT where human rights leaders believed in human rights, but those rights (LGBT) didn’t count, and if you mentioned those rights, people would burst out laughing. There was no way to even talk about it. And through having this comfortable space where the issue on the table was not LGBT rights, the issue was citizen engagement, and having trainers trained to question people about their understanding of rights and to having limits to that understanding of rights: people being in a space where they felt comfortable to question and ask the questions. Previously we would talk about those rights and everybody would lean on their heads. Now they have the space and they were challenged to be able to articulate their understanding of rights, these issues where they had values conflicts within themselves and they were able to be challenged, within the human rights framework they were learning, and what we found is that it created slow but sustained change in people’s thinking. AJWS works in many different domains – we work in mining but also in LGBT rights and before the Citizen Engagement Program, when we would come to our partners, with every partner we have, no matter what the reason we fund them, we tell them what we work on. When we approached peasant organizations and told them we funded LGBT rights, they would laugh and there was no real recognition why we funded them. Before the program there was no recognition. After the Citizen Engagement Program, two years into it, there was a march against gay men in Haiti, which was a very unfortunate march and there was violence against people as a result of it. Several organizations, human rights organizations, published a letter in the major paper in Haiti, deploring the violence against LGBT and saying LGBT rights are real human rights and should be respected. All of those organizations had some interaction with the Citizen Engagement Program. That would have been impossible, it was unheard of before. So it has been a tenable example of a real shift in the way people are thinking. Equitas: What other type of impact or result have you been able to observe from your partners because of the Citizen Engagement Program? ALM: There have been several examples I can give, but one thing I want to emphasize is the depth of the way that people understand and take action on what they are learning. Every organization that I have met believes in women’s rights in Haiti, but so few are taking proactive steps to ensure that they are advancing women’s rights in their communities or have an articulated plan of what that looks like. And so, a great example is after one of the peasant organization representatives became involved in the Citizen Engagement Program, he decided to go back to his community and have community intervention and it was all around advancing women’s rights. I wasn’t part of the process of engagement, I heard what was happening and when I came to visit the community afterwards, and this is a community where previously when I had visited, I would hear community leaders talking and in their conversations with me they would talk about hitting their wives as though it was nothing. We would challenge them on this and they would laugh. These were leaders who were really working for the advancement of their communities, but it (women) just wasn’t an issue for them. This is the same community where the peasant leader decided to work on violence against women and women’s rights. And the difference in the community two years later, In talking to the women, and going to people’s houses and talking to women asking them directly about what do you do when you hear your neighbor beating his wife, I heard answers such as, “I intervene, I take action, I go and I talk to him”. There is a real action that is happening as a result of the program where before we had a lot of lip service around the issue. Equitas: In some communities, we’ve really noticed the change, from talking about activties like harvesting and farming to now integrating LGBT rights… ALM: The problem that most organizations, social movements in Haiti is the problem of organizations working in silos in their different domains – women’s organizations, work in women’s rights and peasant organizations work on land issues, human rights organizations normally work on civil and political rights. There isn’t a lot of intermingling. And we’ve seen a lot of changes around that, we’ve seen some really creative initiatives. For example, the LGBT organization which was one of the first to come to the program, Kouraj, they started to recognize that in order to advance their cause it can’t remain separate from every other human rights issue and that LGBT people need to take the lead on things other than LGBT rights. They began having a series of round tables in their office and inviting leaders in many different domains to come talk, for example, about mining: how are Haitian people affected by mining and how can we educate our community and our friends on what is going on about mining. How can we educate our communities on what is going on in the Dominican Republic with respect to immigrants? How can we deal with issues and how can we also engage with our leaders in these kinds of issues? So, this is happening in a variety of different spaces and it’s really exciting. Equitas: How do you see the next steps with the Citizen Engagement Program? Where should we be going? We have started developing a vision, how  does it fit with the AJWS? ALM: Many of the community initiatives which have started so far are exciting because of the way the process is being used. I would say the concern is that a lot of them look like typical development initiatives. And so, it’s very easy for people to not even recognize the change which is happening with the process that they are going through because the initiative itself looks like something which has happened before. So, ensuring that they circle out, that those kinds of initiatives and the people and the leaders who are being trained can make it to the next level and can overlap with other communities and other initiatives that are being engaged and know how to use the tools of engagement with the state. Because this is the ultimate level we want to get to, citizen engagement with the state so that Haitians can truly own their government and their country and be active participants in determining the future of this country. In order for that to happen people have to know how to use the tools of engaging with the state and also work together on issues that aren’t just about one-off engagement, that are about policies, practices and engaging people in the alternative goals of human rights. — Learn more about our work in Haiti here. This project is made possible thanks to funding from the the Government of Canada provided through Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada (DFATD), the Ministère des relations internationales of Québec, the American Jewish World Service and l’Organisation internationale de la Francophonie. 

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