Dominican-born Sonia Pierre Wins Amnesty International's Human Rights 2003 Ginetta Sagan Award for Working for Her People
by Tequila Minsky
Amnesty International has announced Dominican-born Ms. Sonia Pierre the winner of its 2003 Human Rights Ginetta Sagan Fund Award. The Award is given annually in recognition of individual accomplishment for a woman working on behalf of women or children's rights. The purpose of the Award is to bring international attention to an issue or region in crises, to a person not already well known.
Ms. Pierre was chosen from 20 nominees and was nominated by lawyers from the Berkeley Human Rights Law Clinic.
The Award acknowledges Sonia Pierre's tireless work on behalf of the civil and human rights of her people, Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent. It is the belief that this award will
also serve as an encouragement everywhere for women struggling for human rights.
When Sonia Pierre was 13, she was arrested for being the spokesperson at a demonstration on behalf of braceros-Haitian sugar-cane cutters-who lived in her migrant labor village in the Dominican Republic. The demonstration lasted five days. Workers had some demands met; their living quarters were painted, they got better working tools and machetes, and some got pay raises.
Ms. Pierre's action drew both public attention and positive results. During the following three decades Sonia Pierre has never shied away from controversy and working on behalf of her people-Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent living in the Dominican Republic.
Ms. Pierre's Haitian-born parents came to work in the Dominican Republic 61 years ago. She was born in a batey-a shantytown enclave- which is on the edge of what were sugar-cane fields where her father worked. Her parents still live there. The batey, known as Batey Lecheri
a and 45 minutes from the center of Santa Domingo, the Dominican capital, now stands at the edge of an orange grove and is one-half mile from a free-trade zone factory.
Trained in social work and having attended law school, Ms. Pierre works through the organization Movement of Haitian Dominican Women, Movimiento de Mujueres Dominico-Haitianas, an organization she founded and has directed for 11 years. The organization known as MUDHA is committed to championing the civil and human rights of Dominican nationals of Haitian descent residing in the Dominican Republic. It speaks out for Haitian immigrants and their children and has developed educational programs and works defending the rights of women in the Dominican Republic including labor issues and the promotion of health care and legal education.
Part of Ms. Pierre's work focuses on the regularization of citizenship for children of Haitian descent born in the Dominican Republic. Most of these children have no birth certificates and a
re not considered Dominican residents.
"You have children who are born in this country but they don't have legal papers, birth certificates, health care or education." Ms. Pierre said, "This prevents them from doing what they want in life."
These children by law are legal residents of the Dominican Republic but authorities block legal residency by not giving them birth certificates. The Dominican constitution says:
"All people born in the Dominican Republic are citizens except those born of diplomats or those in transit."
Often parents in the batey are not familiar with procedures for declaring birth. If they miss the 90-day after birth filing period, there are many obstacles to obtaining birth certificates: a Dominican citizen over age 50 must vouch for the child, a completed application must be taken to the 14 provincial offices, and a central office makes the final decision.
The older the child, the more difficult it is to get a birth certificate. The Mo
vement of Haitian-Dominican Women, MUDHA, runs seminars for parents and in the past 10 years has helped over 5,000 children obtain their birth certificates as part of The Right to a Name and Nationality Campaign.
In 1999, University of California at Berkeley's International Human Rights Law Clinic, the Center for Justice and International Law in Washington DC and MUDHA filed an action before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights on behalf of two girls who though Dominican born were being denied their citizenship.
Without a birth certificate a child cannot attend school and lives in fear of expulsion. After an intense four year battle, and a mission from the Organization of American States which visited Santo Domingo and discussed the lawsuit with the OAS human rights commission, in an unprecedented move, the Dominican government issued birth certificates to the two girls. Estimates of the number of Dominican-born children of Haitians without certificates range from 70,000-200,000.
Another ongoing human-rights violation plaguing Haitians living in the Dominican Republic is random and arbitrary deportation. In August 2000, Ms. Pierre presented the case of seven such workers to the Inter-American Court of the Organization of American States. The court ruled in favor of the workers and denounced the deportation practice. Despite this particular success random deportations continue. Haitians in the Dominican Republic are arbitrarily rounded up, driven to the Dominican Republic/Haiti border and pushed across. Although there are no exact numbers, it is estimated that in the past year 45,000 Haitians were deported. Many have spouses and children left behind and some manage to find their way back.
Her work defending the rights of workers and protesting deportations and advocating for children's citizenship is sometimes assisted by university law school clinics such as the International Human Rights Law Clinic at Berkeley School of Law and the Human Rights Law Clinic of C
olumbia University which help her navigate the legal waters and represent clients in an international legal forum.
The formal presentation of the Ginetta Sagan Award will be in April at Amnesty International's Annual General Meeting in Pittsburg, Pennsylavnia. The assembly is called "Imagine", after John Lennon's song. During the three day conference of speakers and panelists, films and seminars, activist allies will explore concrete strategies and models for organizing activism.
The Award which recognizes human rights work in the area of women and children is named for Ginetta Sagan who as a teenager was a member of the Italian resistance in World War II. She helped save countless lives during the war, survived imprisonment and torture, and became a life long advocate of human rights. Years later she joined a fairly newly founded Amnesty International, an organization that worked on the issues she felt deeply and was also was dedicated to bringing attention to international huma
n rights abuses. She later founded the west coast Amnesty International USA office.
The Amnesty logo, barbed wire surrounding a candle is taken from one of Ginetta Sagan's life's experiences. She saved a piece of the fence that separated Italy from Switzerland at the crossing where she helped lead 300 Jews to safety over the Italian mountains.
A $10,000 grant is given to the Award recipient. Another aim of the Award is to enhance the recipient's ability to live and work freely, and to continue, expand, and improve her work. It is not just to acknowledge past achievement but to offer support for future projects.
Previous year's recipients of the Award have come from Rwanda, Uganda, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Peru and Pakistan. Ms. Cosette Thompson, director of Amnesty International USA's west coast office says, "This is the first time we've given this award to someone from the Caribbean region and the first time the award has been given to someone works in the area of Ha
itian diaspora rights.
Ms. Pierre works through MUDHA on a long list of concerns. The organization has established a clinic in one batey, with a doctor on site three days a week.
Establishing schools in the bateyes, improving working and living conditions, conducting workshops on legal rights, and giving support to women's reporting of violence and rape are part of the work. MUDHA has also recently assisted hundreds of political refugees from Haiti.
Ms. Pierre frequently speaks publicly against government of Dominican Republic's policies that discriminate. A few years ago, a letter from Amnesty International provided her with some security against personal threats meant to intimidate and quiet her. Now the same organization is formally recognizing the contribution of her work on behalf of women, children and workers of Haitian descent living with limited human rights in the Dominican Republic.
"I do this work as a woman, the daughter of a Haitian woman, who lived and still l
ives in a state of invisibility," she said. "My mother has made contributions to this country as have a lot of migrants." Women from the bateyes are not used to being visible.
"My greatest hope is that migrant workers achieve their rights." Ms. Pierre said, "I want their contributions acknowledged. I want them to achieve legal status and participate fully in society."
Ms. Pierre's response to receiving the Ginetta Sagan Award, "This prize comes to me, but not to me alone. It is a prize that belongs to all of us working on behalf of human rights in the Dominican Republic. I've been able to do the work of MUDHA because those who work there share my vision as does members of the international community who have stood by me and MUDHA to carry out the work. This work is not something I could carry out alone. I am just a symbol."
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