March, 2020 Monthly Reflection

Pathway to a Better Life

by Jeanne Christensen, RSM in collaboration with Dale Jarvis, RSM

The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas formed Mercy Focus on Haiti as a ministry initiative and one response to our 2011 Chapter Declaration that calls us to a new consciousness and to strengthen our advocacy for the intrinsic value of women’s lives and the equality of women in Church and society. Mercy Focus on Haiti is a group of committed people who share a desire to respond in an effective way to ongoing human needs in Haiti, especially those of women and children. We collaborate with the Religious of Jesus and Mary in ministry with the people of the Gros Morne area in Haiti located in the northwestern portion of the Artibonite Valley. It is a rural area and it takes approximately 5 hours to reach Gros Marne driving from the capital Port-au-Prince.

In addition, we collaborate with Fonkoze, a micro-finance bank, to sponsor a program called Chemin Lavi Miyo (CLM), “a pathway to a better life” in Gros Morne. It is an 18-month program, with a 96% graduation rate, and targets women who are the poorest of the poor. Each woman is provided materials to build or improve her home, training to care for an enterprise activity (usually animals) she has chosen, a caseworker who visits her once a week for the duration of the program, free health care, and a graduation ceremony to celebrate and publicize her achievements. The program has proven that ultra-poor women can reliably lift themselves and their families from extreme poverty when given the necessary tools and sufficient close accompaniment. CLM resulted from the collaborative effort of local Haitians who address the root causes of the rampant poverty and engage the participating women through sound community organizing strategies.

In January 2019, 200 women graduated from our first CLM cohort that started in June 2017. “These women moved from not having an adequate roof or house, a latrine, clean drinking water or their children in school to having these things,” Sister Dale Jarvis notes. “They also have assets in the form of animals, can write their names and no longer suffer from malnutrition.”

Sidelna, a program graduate, said, “I feel like I had hit bottom. But I’ve started to rise. Slowly, slowly. Until I’m ready to stand up proud.” Another graduate upon receiving her certificate said with a smile, “Today I said good-bye to misery.”

Due to the success of the Women Standing Proud Campaign, the second cohort will begin late in 2019. CLM is an 18-month program in which staff work with families every week to help them build the confidence, livelihoods, skills, and assets that result in a more stable future. Specially trained case managers to work with the women of each ultra-poor family throughout an intensive 18-month process helping them build the confidence and skills necessary to create a better life for themselves and their families.

Haiti is known as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and the women served and empowered are among the poorest of the poor, vulnerable in many ways.

Their vulnerability and poverty is one of the root causes of human trafficking in Haiti. Victims of human trafficking in Haiti are “restavek.” This is the practice of an ultra-poor mother giving or selling one of her children, usually a girl, to another family so that she can feed and clothe her other children. Like other incidents of trafficking, there are false promises made—the child will be clothed, fed and perhaps even educated. None of the promises are true and the child becomes a domestic slave, often cooking the meals for the family but not allowed to eat them herself. The child carries the shame and burden of being “restavek.”

I am a Sister of Mercy and because of my ministry addressing the tragedy of human trafficking, I was invited to become involved with Mercy Focus on Haiti. A Sister of Mercy encouraged me to read To Fool the Rain. She knew I would take the bait and become involved! She was right. I was caught and held not only by the description of the empowering CLM program with which Sisters are engaged but also by the knowledge of “restavek”—modern-day slavery commonly practiced in poverty-stricken areas of Haiti, including the Central Plateau and in Gros Marne where the Sisters focus their efforts.

I have not yet visited Gros Morne nor talked with staff or participants in CLM. I hope to visit, to learn how together we can develop a program to eliminate “restavek,” educating the women on who is at risk, the dangers and hardships of the enslaved and how to avoid being at risk. Among the questions to answer: how would this program dovetail with CLM and other programs in the area; who would be collaborators; how would we fund it? We are inspired by the legacy of Catherine McAuley to care for those in greatest need. As daughters of Catherine McAuley, we practice a new, stronger and more vibrant consciousness, and we advocate for the intrinsic value of women’s lives and the equality of women in Church and society.

I know I cannot not become involved in eradicating the terrible poverty that gives birth to children known as “restavek.”

What about you? What is your reaction to knowing about “restavek?” How do you respond to this and any other incomprehensible injustice?

To learn more, visit Mercy Focus on Haiti.

Read To Fool the Rain: Haiti’s Poor and Their Pathway to a Better Life by Steven Werlin, available on Amazon.

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