The poverty-stricken women of Haiti have a brave champion in Joune Viaud, a pioneer in providing medical services — and a sense of empowerment — to those most in need.
By Jennifer Margulis
First published in Ms. magazine
Born in the coastal town of Port-Salut in the south of Haiti, Loune Viaud is a woman of action. In her 37 years, she has braved exile, scorn, illness and death threats, and worked to procure health care for hundreds of thousands of Haiti’s poorest while also empowering them to overcome a cycle of poverty and disease. She brings to her work courage, compassion and a refreshing perspective on health as a basic human right.
“We believe in social justice and health care for all. It’s like you need food to live—you need to be in good health to be able to live a good life. Health care is a right that every human should have,” says Viaud, who serves as the Director of Strategic Planning and Operations and the Drug Procurement Officer for a network of hospitals including the Clinique Bon Sauveur in Cange.
That hospital began as a rural clinic with few facilities and even fewer supplies. Under the direction of Viaud and her colleagues at Partners In Health (Zanmi Lasante in Creole)—the nonprofit umbrella organization that supports the project—it has grown into a state-of-the-art health center, including a children’s hospital, which offers free care to any sick person who needs it. “It doesn’t matter if you are poor or rich—everyone is welcome. We have patients coming from everywhere in the country to Cange,” Viaud says.
As a feminist determined to help women in poverty, Viaud pioneered central Haiti’s first women’s health center—she helped inaugurate Proje Sante Fanm in December 1990—and has since helped train scores of women’s health agents and traditional birth attendants. In addition, she has implemented several women’s literacy projects, a scholarship program for girls and a gender-awareness curriculum for training health care personnel.
“It’s no exaggeration to claim that Loune’s pragmatic solidarity has reached hundreds of thousands of Haitian women living in poverty,” says Partners In Health co-founder Dr. Paul Farmer. “Her efforts have reached, and transformed, the lives of these women and inspired other women to rethink their own choices.”
From a political perspective, women’s health care is particularly important in Haiti. Women are the majority of heads of households in the country (over 60 percent); they are responsible for paying rent, feeding and raising children and guarding the health of their families. Yet, significantly for their health and quality of life, Haitian women live in an extraordinarily unequal society in terms of gender.
According to the United Nations Development Programme, Haitian women rank last in a gender development index of countries in the Western Hemisphere; of women in 25 Latin American countries, they place at the absolute bottom in female-male life expectancy differential, incidence of teen marriage, contraceptive use, primary school enrollment and so on. They are at the bottom as well in mortality in childbirth.
In part due to Viaud’s tireless efforts, Cange today is a thriving health center, a village de la médecine. On the drive to Cange, the closer you get to the hospital, the healthier the people become. “You can literally see the difference in their faces,” says Monika Kalra Varma of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, which chose Viaud as a human rights laureate in 2002. “It’s not only that they’re healthier. There’s something in their eyes. They know they have a right to health.”
Every day, between 200 and 300 Haitians benefit from the free treatment at the Clinique Bon Sauveur, originally planned to accommodate 80 people daily. In addition, Viaud and her colleagues have trained more than 800 community outreach workers to do follow-up home visits.
The success of the hospital has not only led to many other positive programs in Cange, but also changed the way the village sees itself. More important, perhaps, Viaud’s program of empowering Haitian women to recognize their right to good health has started a quiet revolution of its own.