Patrick Bernard Pierre has worked with H.O.P.E., WomenStrong’s Consortium Member in Haiti, since 1996 and, quite literally, helped lay the foundation for the organization that today serves thousands of women and girls in the northern commune of Borgne. In the beginning, he helped with construction of the very first clinic, carrying materials, assisting other construction workers, and painting, all without pay because he understood his community’s desperate need for a health facility. After the clinic opened its doors, Patrick continued working in the pharmaceutical dispensary, where he observed the women coming in for care and learned about their specific health needs. Two decades later, that small clinic has grown into a hospital and health network serving 80,000 residents of the rural commune.
In 2010, Patrick realized his longstanding desire to become a field agent/community organizer, or “Agent de Terrain,” across the entire 1,300 square mile commune. As Coordinator of Field Operations and member of the SEE Team — an acronym in Haitian Creole for health, education and economic development — Patrick works every day to improve the lives of impoverished women and girls, both in his hometown of Borgne and in the remote surrounding mountain region, most of which is accessible only on foot.
His recognition of the importance of women’s health and empowerment, his profound understanding of the need for gender equality and his tireless work for Haitian women and girls make Patrick a true #WomenStrongWarrior.
We recently sat down with Patrick for a conversation about his philosophy of development and the evolution of his work.
Tell us about how your development work as part of the SEE Team has evolved.
At first, we were doing community education in response to the cholera epidemic that the whole country was facing. Our need to deal with the cholera epidemic in Haiti taught us a lot. We became interested in economic development and clean water, latrines/sanitation and cleaning up the environment. Today, we have a community that effectively controls cholera because of continuing community education and young people who work very hard on the environment. We have had fewer people infected by cholera than most communes in the country.
We never lost track of our work in community health education and in programs to prevent malaria and other diseases. We’ve had good results, not 100%, but progress. We haven’t had one case of malaria in the commune in a couple of years, not even one in the town of Borgne. The rate of HIV has been steadily decreasing.
When you do this kind of work you need to keep in mind the low level of education in the community. We noticed that every time we repeated a message, people became surer of what they learned. Like a baby learning to walk, it takes several tries before they get it.
Community health education is hard and intensive work but it has resulted in healthier households. We’re sure of the impact of the work we’re doing. And we’re sure that the community will, one day, be able to stand on its own two feet. That’s the stability we’re looking for. It will take time and it require patience and hard work, but, we believe it will happen some day. I find this work very rewarding and I am passionate about it.
Why have you chosen to focus so much of your work on women and girls? Why is this important to you?
I shouldn’t say this work is important: it is more than important, it is more important than anyone can imagine. Women are the ones who raise children, children who are raised to build a better society. Women bring information into the household, information that creates positive change. Our efforts also help women understand the importance of their own work. They need information and education to improve their lives and to teach their own children so they can continue improving their lives. That’s it.
Parents here have always benefitted from their daughters’ labor and were scared to let their girls develop their own spirit, expand their minds. Now, along with WomenStrong, we have graduated 500 women out of “Mothers’ Clubs,” where they are taught health and hygiene, how to manage their households, and skills like conflict resolution and community building. They are better integrated into society. They now have a better understanding of disease, disease treatments, household hygiene, how to interact constructively with their husbands, and how to build stronger families. They take this information back to their communities and teach others. We’ve also taught both adult men and women how to read and write and be good citizens.
From the first year I worked in the field, I saw the need for a special program for women. I thought from the beginning that if all 23- to 30-year-old women in the community received reliable health information from the start, we could have a good society.
You also work with the Girls’ Clubs; what do you do?
We have many adolescent groups throughout the rural areas, as well as girls groups in town. Miss Lazare, who is responsible for Girls’ Clubs in the town of Borgne, has supported women throughout her life, and I hold her in my heart. But we have another kind of group in the rural sections. There we have mothers who lead the groups. We visit them and advise them and train them. Boys in these areas didn’t want to be excluded from these groups, they wanted to participate, too. So, we said “okay,” but we organized the clubs so we’d have more girls than boys. With 45 adolescents in each group, 15 are boys, and 30 are girls.
The girls are the most zealous. They work more. They want to take charge of their lives more. They’re very motivated, and they don’t want to miss opportunities to develop. Our task is to help them as best we can.
This morning, I watched a young boy who, like so many little boys, carries sand for a man who makes cement blocks. He works to help his parents pay for things. I saw him working long before the morning meeting at school. It is the same with little girls. They help their parents farm so they can eat, and then, after working hard, they go to school. There are a lot of kids that complete their first, second and third years of school, but then it gets too hard and they are unable to continue. We would like to find a way to teach them, to find teachers willing to work with them.
There are not enough schools, especially in the rural areas. For a child living in the mountains and going to school in Borgne, that kid might leave the mountain where she lives to walk to school and then back, walking up to 15 miles. Imagine walking that far on roads and paths too rough for motorcycles. There are a lot of children who are left behind in these areas, especially girls, who can’t attend school no matter how much they want to.
What do you like best about your job?
That’s easy. I like everything about the work because I created it. I like what I do. Really, there’s nothing in the work that I don’t like. I hike mountains, I beat the sun and the rain to speak with people, to educate them. I like seeing the results of the work we do.
I used to walk to each section in the commune to see how things were going in terms of health and education. We have 59 large zones in the seven rural sections of the commune and I know each of them like I know my own pocket. Now, we have trained women to be leaders in their own communities, we call them “animatris,” and we have trained community health workers who do much of the work.
What do you hope for the future of the community and for women and girls?
For the women, I hope to work alongside them. I hope for them to have the economic means to live, and for me to assist them the best way I can. I hope that they become independent, for women to shake off their dependency on the family. I hope for them to have a really good education, and for the society to begin supporting them.
We need to give women a better education at all levels. That’s why we are trying to integrate women as leaders in all activities, at all levels. It used to be just us, the males, who could teach them, train them because they had been neglected before. They were neglected because their parents didn’t really want to send their girls to school, but instead wanted girls to stay at home to prepare food, to help in the house. But, those who weren’t allowed to attend school are the ones who today most want to send send their own kids to school. That is for the women.
For the children, this work is really about them, to energize them and encourage them to believe that they can build a different society. We are getting closer every day. We want a society that is more just, that doesn’t depend on others for help, a society whose members understand their responsibilities toward themselves and each other, and build the kind of families that will create that society.”
For the community, I want us to become a model for the whole rest of the country. I want the people in this community to bring our experience to other communes, so that we can really create a different country. I know this will require a lot of work, a lot of time and money. But that’s it, 100%. That’s the dream.