Bare essentials: T.O. org puts women’s underpants on Haiti’s aid agenda

On the second anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, let’s get down to a skimpy project that lays bare a whole lot about the men in charge of international emergency aid missions.

This has to do with women’s drawers, and their new role in the agenda of global emergency assistance. The story starts here in T.O. at a fundraiser for Beaches Alternative School last summer. Haitian musician Jaffa Charles performed there, and when parent activist Maggie Hayes asked Charles’s wife, Canadian filmmaker Sandra Whiteley, what one person could do for the people of Haiti, Whiteley told her, “Collect underwear.”

Hayes mulled it over, then got down to work. She and some friends coined a hokey slogan, “We care with underwear,” and connected to a charitable host, Rights Action, which supports grassroots groups in Central America. By November, they had 1,500 pairs of new underwear to send to Port au Prince with Whiteley.

Huge lineups greeted Whiteley’s drop-off. Underwear, says Hayes, is “the most basic part of dignity and femininity and who you are. We don’t need to do big, fancy things.”

Rules were minimal. No second-hand donations. No corporate or big charity sponsors. The third rule came from yoga, which Hayes teaches: no attachment. “It’s about women giving to women freely, with no attachment or expectations.’’

Now Hayes has defined her January 2012 project as a step toward Haitian self-reliance, with the founding of a workers’ co-op of underwear makers. The Women’s Bookstore held a fundraiser that netted $3,500. Peach Berserk donated silkscreened pockets so the undies could have a tiny pocket for personal things, because Haitian women carry no purses. Designer Fabrics discounted the materials. Beach Sewing Centre donated industrial thread and five reconditioned sewing machines. Hayes bought the scissors. Air Canada gave free shipping for 19 duffel bags of cloth and sewing equipment.

Almost all the $3,500 in donations goes to pay four Haitian women, who will work five hours a day while their kids are at school. Co-op staff call their unique brand La Poche, the French and Haitian word for pocket.

“The one thing they want to be known,” says Hayes, “is that the underwear is made in Haiti under the control of Haitians,” not one of the foreign factories set up by occupying forces in a unregulated zone.

In mid-January, Hayes and Whiteley took 3,000 pairs of already-mades to give away at a Port au Prince encampment as the co-op project was gearing up. I saw Hayes’s pictures of the four-woman co-op taking lessons from Hayes, herself recently taught by her donors. The work will be done on tables placed in the donated backyard of an art shop. Hayes will bring no more underwear to Haiti. Her next stop is Zimbabwe.

Across town from the new co-op, Canada’s Haitian-born former Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, now a UNESCO envoy to Haiti, gave an address for the January 12 anniversary at the government palace directly facing a park bursting with makeshift shelters. What killed about 300,000 Haitians was not an earthquake, she said. What killed them was “extensive, even murderous negligence.”

What is hurting people now is the global refusal to provide funds to the elected Haitian government and the hoarding of power and funding in foreign agencies and NGOs. “The aid and handouts system has become a business that corrodes the power of self-government,’’ she said, calling for more small and medium local businesses.

Providing people with small articles that affirm personal dignity also resonates with the message of Dr. Paul Farmer, who has worked for 20 years in Haiti. No, he doesn’t write about underwear in his classic Pathologies Of Power: Health, Human Rights And The New War On The Poor. But Farmer identifies themes central to the relentless but stoically endured suffering of his patients – victims, he says, of “structural sin.”

The suffering silence of people is eloquent, he argues, because they know their needs are not deemed worthy or lofty enough , and because their whole lives have been filled with small indignities – perhaps some related to underwear.

Though it’s too early to situate Hayes’s project in the global history of underwear, I remember from my previous life as a social historian specializing in women’s movements the story of how Dr. Augusta Stowe-Gullen, pioneer of Women’s College Hospital, came out as an early crusader for votes for women. She bicycled down Yonge Street – in full emancipatory bloomers. There’s always nine-tenths more under the surface — and that applies to undies as much as icebergs.

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