Dominicans of Haitian descent, human rights defenders and international NGOs mourn the death of Sonia (Solange) Pierre. Her work was widely known at national and international level where the news of her death has generated many expressions of sympathy and solidarity.

Sonia was born in 1963 in the batey “Lechería” in the municipality of Villa Altagracia, Dominican Republic. (A batey is a settlement where sugar cane cutters live on a plantation during harvest.) Her parents, María Carmen Pierre and André Cofidan, came to the Dominican Republic from Haiti in the 1950s to work on the sugar cane plantations as sugar cane cutters.

From an early age, Sonia was an indefatigable activist, fighting for the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent to Dominican nationality, which resulted from the direct effect it had on her life. In 1976, aged only 13, she was arrested and threatened with deportation to Haiti for leading a march advocating for cane cutters’ rights. “I was crying because I didn't know anyone in Haiti,” Sonia once recalled.

Sonia was a pioneer in organising Dominicans of Haitian descent in the bateyes. At the beginning of the 1980s, she founded MUDHA (Movimiento de Mujeres Dominico-Haitianas), an organisation working to improve the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent and their quality of life in the bateyes. Her tireless work for this group, which represents approximately half a million people, increased their visibility and voice.

As a human rights activist and lawyer, she received many awards for her work including the Robert F. Kennedy Award (2006), the International Women of Courage Award (2010) and the order Honour and Merit (2010).

As a result of her outspokenness, Sonia received numerous direct threats. This situation reached its climax when in August 2000 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights called on the Dominican authorities to protect her.

In 2005, she achieved one of the most important precedents in the realm of international law on the recognition of nationality, the protection of children, and the right to education, in the case Yean and Bosico versus Dominican Republic at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (September 2005). In this judgment, the Inter-American Court concluded that, in the case of Dominicans of Haitian descent, the migratory status of parents cannot be inherited by their children.

In 2007, Sonia was threatened with an annulment of her birth certificate based on questions about the legal status of her parents and the validity of their identification documents. This placed her in imminent danger of being deported. Luckily, this situation resolved after a massive international campaign in her favour.

Sonia dies two days after the Dominican Supreme Court ratified through a judgment that Emildo Bueno, a Dominican of Haitian descent, does not have the right to Dominican nationality. Sonia's struggle - which is the struggle of all Dominicans of Haitian descent - continues.

Progressio has a long history of supporting MUDHA, the organisation Sonia founded in 1984. MUDHA was instrumental in Progressio developing our work in the bateyes and with the Dominican-Haitian communities. MUDHA’s presence in the bateyes demonstrated a clear solidarity, commitment and a vocation in working with those vulnerable communities and at grassroots level.

Progressio expresses sadness and sends condolences to Sonia’s family, the team at MUDHA and to the wider community of Dominicans of Haitian descent. As an international NGO, we are grateful to Sonia and MUDHA for helping us to fully appreciate the dimension and importance of this issue for Dominican society.

Sonia is survived by her children Manuela, Carlos, Leticia and Humberto and her grandchildren Gael and Israel. Sonia will be greatly missed but she also leaves a great legacy behind – many Dominicans of Haitian descent have already expressed their wish to continue working towards the acquisition of full Dominican nationality.

Lizzette Robleto Gonzalez is Progressio's Policy and Advocacy Officer for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Photo: Sonia Pierre (centre) with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (left) and Michelle Obama after receiving her International Women of Courage Award in 2010. (Photo: US Department of State, creative commons licence)