Haitian Heroines: Women Are the Backbone of Haiti's Market System. but They Need Help-Desperately

By Rhodes, Leara | The International Economy, November-December 2001 | Go to article overview

Haitian Heroines: Women Are the Backbone of Haiti's Market System. but They Need Help-Desperately


Rhodes, Leara, The International Economy


During a visit to Haiti, Daniel Morel, an Associated Press photojournalist, met me at my downtown Port-au-Prince hotel Sunday morning at 5:45. We were going to Sucre, a village about 150 kilometers north of the capital, to cover the opening of the twelve-day Voodoo Festival. We piled our gear into his small jeep. The route to Sucre passed by Cite Soleil and Daniel asked if I had ever been through the slum. The slum is reputed to be the worst in the world. It's the same slum from which Jean-Bertrand Aristide drew much support during his first election as President. The slum occupies about five square kilometers of land (or reclaimed sea swamp) and is the home of 360,000 people.

Daniel tums off the main road onto a trail. The trail, just barely wide enough for the small jeep, winds deeply through the slum filled with row, after row, after row of cardboard and tin shacks made from abandoned sheet metal, driftwood, mud, and cement bricks. Many shacks have dirt floors. There is no running water or sewage system. Open drainage ditches are filled with pungent excrement and garbage. As Daniel drives through the slum, the trail is lined with children and adults. Many wave at Daniel as we drive into holes and gullies and back out again, weaving and threading our way through the masses, through the debris, through the shacks. A track up ahead has ice on its flatbed. A man throws the ice into the dirt. People scramble to chip off blocks of ice to take and sell.

As we drove, I remembered a story a Reuter's reporter had told me about a Western reporter who went into the slum to interview people. The reporter had a translator since 90 percent of Haitians speak Creole. The reporter asked a woman what was her daily budget. The translator refused to ask the question. She knew that if the woman had any money that day she would eat. If she didn't have any money, she would not eat.

A woman who lives in Cite Soleil is an example of how women in the poorest slum in the world want to improve their lives. According to reports of the Trickle Up program, Anita Leroux is thirty-eight years old and has seven children. The father of the first five children died eight years ago. The father of the last two children abandoned the family a year ago. No one knows where he went. Abandonment is common in this neighborhood when men cannot support their family. Anita's economic situation improved, however, through an entrepreneur program designed to help the poorest of the poor. Anita started a business selling candies but has since changed to selling hot food. She cooks fried plantains and fried meat in her house in the early moming then sells it in the market during the day. With a US$50 grant from the Trickle Up program, Anita bought many plantains and a small amount of meat. She spends most of her profits on reinvestment, making approximately four Haitian dollars per day in profits. Five Haitian dollars equals one U.S. dollar. Now, four of her seven children go to school, whereas only three went to school before she had participated in the Trickle Up program. She says her life has improved considerably. She is able to provide more for her children. Her family eats no more than two times per day. Before the Trickle Up program, her family ate at the most once a day. Her method to curb her hunger was to eat her meal in the morning and then go to sleep early in the night.

Survival needs have been the basis for much of Latin American and Caribbean women's organized resistance to their subordination. These needs exist at the individual or family level as well as in the neighborhood or workplace, rather than at the level of large-scale social movements, political parties, feminist groups, or labor unions. For instance, families like Anita's use multiple income strategies, with members engaging in a variety of survival efforts, such as earning wages in the formal sector, growing subsistence produce, trading in the informal sector, or performing unpaid household labor. …

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