Sonia was born to Haitian sugar cane cutters in one of many migrant worker communities called bateys, where much of the Dominican Republic’s population of Haitian descent at risk of statelessness – estimated to number several hundred thousand – now lives. At the age of 13, Sonia began her activist career by organizing a five-day protest of sugar cane workers to demand better working and living conditions, which led to her arrest. 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.
In 1983, Sonia founded MUDHA, whose original aim was to combat anti-Haitian prejudice and sexism. The organization sought to give visibility and address the needs of Dominico-Haitian and Haitian women, with and for whom they began to develop primary healthcare, family planning services and educational programs in the chronically impoverished and State-neglected bateys. Sonia 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.
From these experiences of direct service, Sonia and MUDHA came to realize that development would not be possible without social integration and, in turn, social integration would not be possible while Dominicans of Haitian descent remained effectively stateless.
The situation is even graver today, following the highly criticized 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.
A large number of the population MUDHA serves has been in the Dominican Republic for generations, making it difficult to demonstrate any link with the Haitian state through their ancestors. In any case, the current Haitian Constitution and nationality laws manifest that this large population group is ineligible for Haitian citizenship. There has been ambiguity in the application of Dominican laws, which have become more restrictive over the years, leaving Dominicans of Haitian descent with little to no citizenship options.
The Constitutional Court ruling has left thousands of people in the Dominican Republic in dismay. Many have called it their “civil death”. And it is fuelling an upsurge in xenophobia. On November 4, 2013, Day of the Constitution, hundreds of people took part in a nationalist demonstration in Santo Domingo chanting “death to the traitors”, including human rights activists such as MUDHA.
Since the mid-1990s, the organization has been providing legal assistance and accompaniment to thousands of stateless persons, in an effort to regularize their situation and obtain legal identity documents. Today, MUDHA is a prominent Dominican NGO with 31 years of experience working for the social, political, and cultural rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent, and their Haitian relatives. With a staff of 17 employees and 35 volunteers, MUDHA works at multiple levels, successfully connecting their grassroots training and accompaniment in the defense of human rights with legal services, education, health promotion, institutional strengthening, and high-level advocacy on behalf of the population they serve.
For the last 20 years, MUDHA has carried out a national advocacy campaign demanding the right to a name and nationality for Dominicans of Haitian descent. The campaign has employed the tripartite strategy of making visible those affected, raising awareness about the latest discriminatory tactics and any political windows of opportunity, and publicly denouncing discriminatory citizenship practices.
In the midst of the 2011 campaign, Sonia Pierre suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 48. Four days later, still mourning the sudden loss of their visionary leader, MUDHA staged one of the largest concentrations of Dominicans of Haitian descent, some 3000-strong, in front of the Supreme Court in Santo Domingo. Distraught but determined, the stateless masses protested in the name of Sonia, in the name of all Dominicans of Haitian descent: “We will always remember you. Our fight will continue!” “We are all Dominican. We are all Sonia Pierre.”