Sonia Pierre

Solange, better known as Sonia, Pierre was born in Villa Altagracia, San Cristóbal, Dominican Republic, in 1963 to parents of Haitian origin. Her mother migrated with a temporary work permit in 1957, and her father entered the Dominican territory illegally. Both her parents worked as sugar cane cutters.

One of twelve children, she was raised in a migrant worker camp called a batey or a “village slum”, where many of the Dominican Republic's people of Haitian descent (Dominico-Haitians) live. The minority of Dominican-born ethnic Haitians, between 500,000 and a million live in the Dominican Republic, live in bateyes. Most of those born in the Dominican Republic are descendants of Haitians who crossed the border fleeing violence or seeking economic opportunity

Pierre’s career as a human rights activist started at the early age of 13. At 13, she organised a five-day protest by sugar cane workers on one of the country's bateyes, which led to her being arrested and threatened with deportation. However, the protest attracted enough public attention that the workers' demands—namely, to have their living quarters painted and be given better tools and pay raises—were met.

Since then, Pierre fought to secure citizenship and education for the beleaguered Dominico-Haitians. In 1963, Pierre founded and worked as director of the NGO, Movement for Dominican Women of Haitian Descent (MUDHA). MUDHA endeavours to end antihaitianismo or discrimination against Haitians in the Dominican Republic. MUDHA seeks to give visibility and address the needs of Dominico-Haitian and Haitian women, with and for whom the organisation began to develop primary health care, family planning services and educational programs in state neglected bateyes. Pierre and MUDHA’s “thinking on social exclusion has been intersectional from the start, paying attention to the ways in which gender and age make certain groups of Haitian migrants and their descendants even more vulnerable than others. Their analysis and corresponding action over the years has led them to focus on women, children, the elderly, and entire batey communities who are excluded from public services because the Dominican State does not recognize them as citizens, much less rights holders.

In 2005, Pierre petitioned at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on the case of two ethnic Haitian children who were denied Dominican birth certificates. Called Yean and Bosico v. Dominican Republic, the case "upheld human rights laws prohibiting racial discrimination in access to nationality and citizenship." The court also ordered the Dominican government to provide the birth certificates. However, the Dominican Supreme Court later ruled that "Haitian workers were considered 'in transit,' and that their children were therefore not entitled to citizenship."

The situation is even graver today, following the highly criticised September 23, 2013 ruling of the Dominican Constitutional court which, in practice, deprives many people of foreign descent of their Dominican nationality, making them stateless. It is to be applied retroactively to all those born to parents with irregular migratory status since 1929, potentially affecting hundreds of thousands, mostly Dominicans of Haitian descent.
For her work, Pierre won the 2006 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award handed down by former US Senator Edward Kennedy. In presenting the award to Pierre, Senator Kennedy quoted a long-time friend of hers who said: "I am a better person today for having met, worked, and travelled this road with Sonia Pierre. With certitude, I can affirm that Sonia is one of the most selfless, courageous and compassionate human beings of my generation.” When she received her award, Pierre denounced what she said were "massive abuses" against people of Haitian descent, particularly children.

Pierre also won Amnesty International's 2003 Human Rights Ginetta Sagan Fund Award, and she and MUDHA were nominated for the UNESCO Prize for Human Rights Education in 2002. In 2008, she was awarded the Giuseppe Motta Medal for protection of human rights, and in 2010, she was also honoured by the United States Department of State with a International Women of Courage Award.

However, her work as a human rights activist was not entirely admired by many, especially Dominican nationalists. Pierre was once chased out of her Santo Domingo office by a man waving a pistol. She was also punched at a stop light by another man who told her, "I know who you are."

On December 4, 2011, In the midst of fighting for the Constitutional Court to grant Dominico—Haitians citizenship, Pierre had a heart attack, and died, at the age of 48. Pierre is survived by three children.

Edwin Paraison, Executive Director of the Zile Foundation, a Haitian group that attempts to improve relations between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, said, "She was like a sister to me. The Haitian community has lost someone who was a huge advocate in the fight for Haitian rights."

Throughout her life, Pierre insisted she was trying to help her people and not criticise the Dominican Republic. "I am not a critic of my country, and this is my country," she said. "I am a critic of my government."


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