"Women and Duvalier" by Jennifer Garcon

Garcon is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Miami. Her dissertation will explore gender in Haitian history.

During the Duvalier era (1957-1986), women became the targets of state repression. Traditionally women had been defined as "dependent wives and daughters." And therefore, as author Carolle Charles has explained, women were partially protected from state violence because of their exclusion from politics. By the time of the 1957 presidential election, however, women had full voting rights . On 7 August 1957, one month before the election, the henchmen of candidate François Duvalier attacked the Women’s Political Bureau of Duvalier’s opponent Louis Déjoie. This inaugural act of terror demonstrated the dramatic extent to which the political role of women had shifted.

Duvalier completely reorganized existing structures of power by ushering in new forms of systematic violence. Entire towns, soccer teams and kinship networks were subject to what Michel-Rolph Trouillot has described as a "totalizing" form of violence. This violence, moreover, had a distinctly gendered component as Duvalier’s henchmen frequently employed torture-rape, acquaintance-rape and coerced marriage to silence female opposition. The Duvalier regime used sexual violence and humiliation as a weapon of intimidation against political opposition.

On 5 January 1958, feminist activist and anti-Duvalier journalist, Yvonne Hakime-Rimpel was beaten, raped and tortured after being abducted from her home by the Tonton Macoutes, Duvalier’s personal paramilitary group. Her bloodied body was later found discarded on an empty street. Soon after, she publically retracted her previous denunciations of the Duvalier Regime and discontinued her feminist journal Escale. Under Duvalier, the tremendous growth achieved by feminist organizations since the end of the United States Occupation in 1934 quickly disappeared.

Duvalier simultaneously incorporated women into his political machinery as instruments of violence. Women participated in the Duvalierist terror apparatus as members of the Fillette Laleau, a sister organization of the Tonton Macoutes. Promising economic and social mobility, Duvalier heavily recruited poor and working-class women into the Fillette. Thousands of oppressed and overburdened women joined in hopes of obtaining great power for themselves and protection for their families. As a result, abuse of women by women was commonplace.

Meanwhile, Duvalier’s "state feminism" co-opted the feminist movement. In its place, Duvalier constructed two categories of women: patriotic women whose alliance was first and foremost to Duvalier and unpatriotic women whose opposition to Duvalier made them both unnatural and enemies of the state. As Trouillot explained in his book, State Against Nation, the Duvalier regime shattered the traditional solidarities of civic society and the family, making it essential that a "good Duvalierist must be ready to sacrifice his own mother."