March 15, 2017
WomenStrong International is an organization of bold women, from the brave girls in our Girls’ Clubs in Ghana, Haiti, India, and Kenya, to the women who face challenges each day, as they work to lift themselves out of extreme urban poverty. So the theme for International Women’s Day 2017 is one we can relate to -- #BeBoldforChange. It would be hard to find a bolder, more dedicated, more innovative and passionate group of women than the Project Directors who run WomenStrong programs in our five Consortium member sites. In honor of Women's Day this year, we celebrate these bold women with a series of short profiles. We hope you find their stories as inspiring as we do and that these stories encourage you, too, to #BeBoldforChange.
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and raised in a small suburb, Dr. Rose-Marie Chierici grew up in a home of relative privilege as the daughter of a successful agronomist and coffee farmer. The Founder and Executive Director of WomenStrong Consortium Member Haiti Outreach-Pwoje Espwa (H.O.P.E.) remembers the political turmoil of the 1950s in Haiti and said her father lived two lives: one as an opposition political activist, and another as a working professional, although he balanced them seamlessly.
Chierici’s father spent much of his time in rural Haiti working with peasant co-ops, rooted in many of the same ideas that slightly later gave birth to Liberation Theology in Latin America and its support for the political struggles of the poor against the wealthy elite. His work led to his arrest three times during Chierici’s childhood.
When Francois Duvalier came to power in 1957, the future dictator seized Chierici’s father’s land and all his property. No longer safe in Haiti, her father arranged for the entire family to move to Washington D.C., where he took a job at the Inter-American Development Bank. At the age of 18 just after graduating from high school, Chierici was forced to gather as many of her belongings as she could carry and say goodbye to her friends, her country and the only life she’d ever known – in fewer than three weeks.
“I had no choice, no say in it. I wasn’t ready to leave, not under those conditions. I was uprooted and re-potted somewhere else, in soil that was not familiar. The struggle to find yourself and rebuild your identity, your sense of self, in a culture that you had to learn about, that you did not instinctively understand – that’s hard work,” Chierici recalled. Years later, this abrupt exile and the lack of closure with her former home played a key role in her return to Haiti and the work she then took on.
But back in October 1960, Chierici got busy adapting to her new American life, including a fast-approaching winter complete with her first snow. Although a high school student with top marks in Haiti, Chierici’s English was not fluent enough to begin college. She immersed herself in an English language program, where she gained exposure to a multitude of cultures. It was in this class, especially in conversations with a female Iranian classmate fighting her parents to avoid an arranged marriage, that Chierici became interested in anthropology. “My world exploded from tiny Haitian teacup into a big world of learning,” she says.
Chierici received her undergraduate degree from George Washington University, got married, and had children. For a number of years, her family lived in her husband’s home country of Italy. But her love for her true home, Haiti, never faded. Chierici enrolled in graduate school to study anthropology, which she knew was a vehicle to bring her back to her homeland. In 1987, 25 years after she had left, Chierici returned to Haiti, in the company of Dr. Paul Farmer, Harvard professor of medicine and co-founder of the venerable NGO Partners in Health.
Confronted by the struggle facing her people, Chierici felt compelled to act. She and her siblings felt they needed to finish the work their father had started in rural Haiti decades before. She also felt that beyond the urban culture of her hometown, Port-au-Prince, there was another, rural Haiti that she longed to understand. This was the Haiti where her father had worked and for which he had risked his life and freedom. Having lost everything as a young girl, Chierici could empathize with others facing hardship.
“My father was very clear with us that with privilege comes responsibility,” Chierici says. It was time to turn that responsibility into action. In 1996, she co-founded Haiti Outreach - Pwoje Espwa, or H.O.P.E., and opened its first clinic, in the small northern coastal town of Borgne.
H.O.P.E. fills a significant health care gap in Borgne, where government programs are largely nonexistent. H.O.P.E runs the only hospital in the entire northern commune of Borgne, complete with an operating room — the only one in all of Northern Haiti, which has already saved the lives of countless women and babies — and a health network that includes Women’s Mobile Health Clinics, which rotate among several rural villages to serve the remote populations of the eight mountainous regions of Borgne.
H.O.P.E. also runs adolescent and girls’ clubs, to support young people in finishing school and hopefully in starting a career that can help improve conditions in their communities. They learn about health, nutrition, human rights, and full engagement as citizens. H.O.P.E.’s economic empowerment programs support women in building financial literacy, creating sustainable livelihoods and spreading knowledge about health and nutrition to other women, both in town and in their remote mountain hamlets.
H.O.P.E.’s work makes a profound difference in improving the lives of women and girls, their families, and communities. After more than 20 years working in Borgne, Chierici understands that she chose one of the most difficult places in Haiti to build on her father’s commitment to the Haitian people. But she continues on, driven by the hope that collaboratively working in partnership with the community will bring about enduring change. Just as Chierici boldly faced the challenges of migration to the U.S., she boldly continues the work that promises to transform many thousands of lives.
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Each year, WomenStrong International brings together the experienced, dedicated leaders of our Consortium member organizations in Ghana, Haiti, India, Kenya and Washington, D.C., to share their innovative initiatives helping women and girls overcome extreme urban poverty.