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Idealist who fought for Haitian equality

Dominican-born Pierre, still battling discrimination in her country, dies at 48

Sonia Pierre - whose tireless work in the defense of the rights of Haitian children and in the battle against discrimination in her native Dominican Republic was recognized by international organizations - died Sunday at her home of a heart attack. She was 48.

Pierre, who received the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, had been suffering from cardiovascular disease for some time. In 2007, the Kennedy family, to whom she was close, paid for her to undergo heart surgery in the United States.

According to medical reports the activist died on arrival at a hospital in her native Villa Altagracia, Dominican Republic, where she was taken by family members and friends.

Born in 1963 in Batey Lechería, in the Villa Altagracia municipality, Pierre at an early age became aware of the rampant discrimination against Haitians that still exists in the Dominican Republic. Her parents, María Carmen Pierre and Andrés Cofidan, who died from a bout of fever the year she was born, migrated to the Dominican Republic from their native Haiti in the 1950s to work in the sugar cane fields.

Pierre and her 11 siblings were raised in poverty in a one-room dirt shack. However, because her mother was respected among sugar workers, Pierre and her sisters did not have to endure the many hardships, such as rape and physical abuse by the authorities, that were common against cane workers.

As a child, Pierre began her lifelong struggle to seek better treatment and equality toward Haitians, including children, who, like her, were Dominican-born but whose parents were Haitian migrants. At the age of 13, in 1976, she was arrested by the authorities when she spoke out at a demonstration that was organized in support of Haitian cane cutters.

It was that spirit of struggle that prompted Pierre to begin organizing meetings in some of her municipality's poorest neighborhoods to foment awareness about discrimination. She was a keen student and before reaching maturity she decided, against her mother's wishes, to go to work for a family as a domestic helper.

In the early 1980s, Pierre began organizing the Haitian community. Later, she put together a group of women of Haitian descent and founded the Dominican-Haitian Women's Movement (Mudha), where she served as president until her death on Sunday. One of Mudha's biggest goals was to defend Dominican-born Haitians and ensure that they were given Dominican nationality and afforded a fair and free education along with the rest of the children.

She filed a complaint against the Dominican government in 2005 with the Costa Rica-based International Human Rights Court for refusing to issue birth certificates to two Haitian migrant children. The court ordered Santo Domingo to issue the documents.

In 2006, the late US Senator Teddy Kennedy presented her with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in Washington. Last year, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US first lady Michelle Obama honored her with the International Women of Courage Award at the US State Department.

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