Gender & communication course for Haitian radio women starts with historic stories of feminist journalists

By Margie Thompson & María Suárez Toro

October 7, 2011

Weaving together the historic and courageous experiences of the first Haitian feminist journalist, an African American woman leader in the US Civil Rights Movement, and a feminist activist and journalist during the French Revolution, two Haitian community radio journalists worked with ESCRIBANA to complete a gender & communication course, September 25-30, 2011. 

Sainte-Helene Alcena (left) and Marie-Guyrleine Justin of REFRAKA from Haiti (Photo by Margaret Thompson)

 Marie-Guyrleine Justin and Sainte-Helene Alcena of REFRAKA (Women’s Network of Community Radios of Haiti) spent one month in Playa Cocles, on the southern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica to learn Spanish and take the ESCRIBANA course offered by María Suárez Toro, Margie Thompson and Yarman Jiménez.  However, all agreed that rather than a regular class, it was more of an intercultural exchange experience with all participants and instructors learning from each other.

Through this interactive process, the course was designed to enable Justin and Alcena to develop a gender policy for REFRAKA that will encompass four levels of analysis, including the place of Haiti in the world; the place of women in Haiti; the place of women in community radio; and women’s bodies and lives in their personal history. 

Yarman Jiménez of ESCRIBANA (front) leading a session with Sainte-Helene Alcena (back left), Sophie Andreaux (translator), and Marie Guyrleine Justin.

Justin said they also plan for REFRAKA to use the Internet tools covered in the class to produce for the Latin American & Caribbean region  in Spanish. Following their language training, their radio production will be included in the annual 16 Days of Activism which starts on November 25th, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and ends on December 10, International Human Rights Day.  “We have become part of that community of women in the region,” declared Justin.  She said the focus of their production will be the sexual violence against Haitian women by the UN “peacekeeping” forces (MINUSTAH – UN Mission in Haiti), also known as the “blue helmets.” 

The stories of Yvonne Hakim Rimpel of Haiti, Rosa Parks of the United States, and Olympia de Gouges of France, provided a strong base for the class to explore theories and practices related to gender & communication, and apply these ideas to work with internet tools for women’s community radio.  The development of a gender policy for REFRAKA is designed to encourage women social movement activists in community radio in Haiti to struggle for their rights and their communities in contexts that are increasingly more hostile to women.

Yvonne Hakim Rimpel, feminist journalist of Haiti

Yvonne Hakim Rimpel (1906-1987), first feminist journalist of Haiti

Justin, who had completed just two weeks of Spanish language class at the time, translated from Creole to Spanish and read to the class the story of Yvonne Hakim-Rimpel, who was the first feminist journalist in Haiti.  Hakim-Rimpal’s political vision, creative activism and courage starting in the 1930s enabled her to speak the truth about women and the repressive political situation in Haiti during the Duvalier dictatorship (1957  – 1986).  She was a founder of the first feminist organization, the Women’s League for Social Action (Ligue Feminine d’Action Sociale) in 1934, and also created two feminist publications, including the magazine, The Voice of Women (La Voix des Femmes) in 1935, and Escale, a bi-weekly news revue in 1951.

In a session led by Margie Thompson, the class analyzed how these personal characteristics and also a wider political vision enabled Hakim-Rimpel to be a highly qualified feminist and journalist, which may in turn be incorporated into the REFRAKA gender policy.  Justin described how in the 1950s, Hakim-Rimpel challenged the brutal dictatorship of “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and in 1958, she and two of her seven daughters were tortured and probably raped by the TonTon Macout guards of the repressive ruler.  Sadly, after her release Rimpel never wrote again, up to the day she died in 1987, but continues to be hailed as a role model for women activists and journalists.

Rosa Parks, African American activist of the US Civil Rights Movement

The Haitian women figurately occupied their own chair during one of the first class sessions, with a skit about Rosa Parks and her refusal to give up her seat on the bus to a white man.  María Suárez Toro focused on Parks as an example of women’s processes toward becoming political subjects and autonomous regarding their bodies, their lives, their relationships, and their work in media. 

Suárez noted that too often Parks is portrayed in history books as an older African American woman who one day in 1955 was too tired of working as a seamstress to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, and so was arrested.  But the reality is that Parks was also very tired of racism, and her refusal was a deliberate act of civil disobedience planned by her and other activists in the civil rights movement to challenge the Jim Crow segregation laws in the US at that time. 

The Haitian women in the class each took a turn to occupy the chair of Rosa Parks, as a means of experiencing and declaring their own commitment to their place as women and their dedication to social change through their work with community radio. 

María Suárez Toro (right) leads a session with Sainte-Helene Alcena (far left), Marie Guyrleine Justin and Sophie Andreaux

Suárez has used this exercise in several workshops and forums following a play that was created from her book, Women, Metamorphosis of the Butterfly Effect (Mujeres, metamorfosis del effecto mariposa, 2008, Farben Norma), which included a chapter about Rosa ParksThe play, “The Labyrinth of the Butterflies,” written and produced by Ailyn Morera of Costa Rica, toured throughout Central America and also was performed in Cape Town, South Africa.  At each location following the show, women’s groups re-enacted the scene with Rosa Parks and the symbolism of occupying the chair, based on their own context and issues of discrimination and racism.

Olympia de Gouges, feminist activist and journalist of the French Revolution

Olimpia de Gouges, feminist activist of the French Revolution

The narrative of Olympia de Gouges, a feminist activist, playwright and journalist during the French Revolution is not widely known, but was used in a class session led by Suárez to illustrate the importance and power of non-sexist and inclusive language in media.  De Gouges was a courageous woman who was determined to challenge the sexist language of the Declaration of the French Revolution (“The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen”), which primarily focused on men. 

Suárez’s book includes another chapter about d’Gouge, who in 1791 along with other women activists rewrote the Declaration (as “the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen”) using French feminine pronouns (vs. the “universal” male pronouns) and triggered an enormous scandal when she read it aloud in the French Parliament. 

Later de Gouges was executed by guillotine and the others imprisoned, but the story provides an historic example of an approach to inclusive language, to issues not covered when the referents in language are men, and the cost of (women) being missing in the story.  It also illustrates the value and power of naming the world, and the contribution of feminist analysis of language.

“Les Invisibles” (The Invisibles) documentary about Haiti by Ishtar Hakim

Ishtar Yasin (right) watches her documentary, "Les Invisibles" with the class

Throughout the 30-day intercultural exchange program, the Haitian women journalists told many stories to illustrate the combination of Haitian women’s strength and the pain they suffer, particularly in relation to the trauma of the massive earthquake on January 10, 2010.  This paradox was illustrated in another session of the class in a documentary viewed by the group entitled, “Les invisibles” (The Invisibles). 

Produced and directed by Ishtar Yasin of Costa Rica, the film was shot in Haiti two months after the January earthquake. After showing the documentary, Yasin, whi joined the class on the night when her film was presented,  discussed with the class how it also illustrates the drama of the dominating relationship of the United States government in Haiti, as well as the expression of feminist activism and art. 

The class also talked about how women, who form the backbone of the informal economy that enables much of the Haitian population to survive, are “invisible” in news coverage by mainstream global media, or shown only as passive victims and refugees.  Hakim’s film included images and interviews with various women in the markets and camps, as well as feminist activism and art.   

Media framing:  Who is included and excluded from the news

Margie Thompson (left) talks about media framing with the class

The film was an example of media framing which was far different than that of CNN, for example, in a clip shown by Margaret Thompson to illustrate the concept.  In the clip which circulated worldwide, Anderson Cooper “saves” a young Haitian boy covered in blood from “Haitian looters” and so becomes the hero of the story himself.  Justin and Alcena talked about the symbolism of this action in light of the long “occupation” by the US of Haiti that dates back numerous decades, and has contributed to the extreme impoverishment of the country. 

The Haitian women described other examples of media frames that they had seen in coverage of the earthquake, which gave voice and a central place for women in the struggle for Haitians themselves to “re-found” their country with a more equitable and just system for all citizens. 

Human right to communication

Also explored in the class was the human right to communication, and the importance of incorporating this right in the REFRAKA gender policy.  Thompson explained that this right, which is included in the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, encompasses freedom of expression, not just for the media and “official” voices, but of the entire population. Justin of REFRAKA noted, “In community radio, unlike other media, we feature not just ‘official voices’ of ‘important’ people, but those who fight for causes that are important to all people.” 

The class also discussed how the human right to communication has evolved since 1948 to today in which more people can produce their own media and information through the internet and social media networks in order to have a voice.  This is particularly important as the mainstream corporate media is now controlled by just seven transnational conglomerates, so community radio and social media constitute important means of exercising a human right.

Internet tools & language enable REFRAKA to participate fully in women’s media networks

In the last two class sessions, the Haitian journalists explored a variety of internet tools that are available for community media such as REFRAKA, which enable uploading and distribution of audio files and streaming.  Yarman Jiménez demonstrated the tools, then conducted interviews with the Haitian women in Spanish.  She taught them how to upload the audio interviews into the computer and then to the internet on a site called IVOOX, which allows for free storage and distribution of audio and other files. 

Marie Guyrleine Justin is interviewed by Yarman Jiménez

Although REFRAKA has yet to decide which tools they will eventually use, Jiménez noted that “technologies are not what drives us, but we can use them to achieve our goals, as in this case are defined by REFRAKA.” 
REFRAKA is a network of 150 women from 27 community radios throughout Haiti.  The national group produces a monthly radio magazine which is distributed to these and also some commercial radios, but “”we think if we can connect on the Internet, more people will listen to us, and it will allow more people to become aware of the issues,” said Justin. 

The women of REFRAKA also want to develop international partnerships with women’s radio networks and organizations such as the AMARC (World Association of Community Radios) Women’s Network, and FIRE (Feminist International Radio Endeavour/ Radio Internacional Feminista) in the region in order to share and translate productions in Haitian Creole, French, Spanish and English.  “To be able to exchange productions is a very important goal for us to become part of the regional and global community,” noted Justin.

Likewise, “if ESCRIBANA produces an interesting article about Haiti and about women in other countries, we can translate it for the group, Ayiti Fanm (Women in Haiti) and community radio,” said Justin. 

Marie Guyrleine Justin translates video footage from Creole to Spanish for Ana Lucia Faeron of TV Channel 15 In San José, Costa Rica

As the gender & communications course reached the end, the Haitian participants reflected back on the month-long intercultural exchange program with ESCRIBANA, and how they can bring these experiences back to Haiti for their work with REFRAKA and women’s community radio. 

Marie Guyrleine Justin said one challenge is “… how to encourage women of REFRAKA in their struggle because producing radio is very hard, with the heavy discrimination that we face in Haiti and community radio. On one side are obstacles that limit women’s participation in decision-making, and also forms of violence that are used for social control.  But there are also women who want to move up using elevators instead of stairs, through intimate relationships with men in the organizations. We must learn to value ourselves to take our own place! ”

Sainte-Helene Alcean is interviewed in Spanish by Ana Lucia Faeron of TV Channel 15

Saint Helene Alcena said she noticed in Costa Rica with a visit with the Bribri indigenous women on the Talamanca Indigenous Reserve, that they have accomplished much in spite of being as poor as Haiti, “because women have organized themselves as women. Before entering REFRAKA, the only organization in which I was involved was that of my church, but in REFRAKA and also with the Bribri women, I have witnessed the fight for our rights. I realize I have to commit more.”  Alcena, who is the administrator of REFRAKA, said she wants to producer her own radio program someday.


For more information go to:, or write to Margie Thompson at: or María Suárez Toro at:

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