HAITI: Haitian Women: Pillars of the Economy, and of Resistance

Friday, October 9, 2009
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 

Faced with enormous debt, poverty, political instability and ongoing violence, Haiti is struggling on multiple fronts. Women, though, are continuing the legacy of resistance and reform that has characterized the country since its founding more than 100 years ago.

Although the economic crisis is all over the news these days, rarely do we find articles or broadcasts that connect personal narratives to systemic explanations. Films, due to their length, format and audiovisual content, allow for deeper explorations of how people are impacted by longstanding policies and systemic inequities and also what they do in response.

Such is the case of the recently released Poto Mitan, which connects the unique current-day socioeconomic challenges and resistance of Haitian women with Haiti's long history of repression, rebellion and revolt.

In Haiti, women are known in Haitian Creole as poto mitan, or central “pillars” of the economy and of family and social life. Many are single heads of households, and others are often responsible for bringing in income when their male partners become unemployed, are recruited to fight or must migrate for work.

Although the push for political democracy has long been a part of Haiti's history, economic justice has not often accompanied it. Haitian women have long paid for the country's debts, which they didn't accrue, with their own time, labor and personal sacrifices. Today, they are not only supporting themselves and their families but building infrastructure and a culture of economic participation that has long evaded many of Haiti's people.

Haiti: Plunder by Colonists, and Later, Trading Partners and Lenders

In 1804, Haiti was born out of a successful slave revolt that led to a free nation. Prior to independence, it was France's most profitable colony. Upon independence, France demanded that Haiti pay 125 million Francs to compensate slave owners for their loss of ‘property.' The president at the time accepted, but couldn't recompense, so Haiti spent nearly a century paying off the debt, which at times consumed up to 80% of government revenue. Thus, while other postcolonial nations were building infrastructure, Haiti was sending its resources elsewhere.

In the twentieth century, Haiti served as a military pawn and economic servant for the United States and other Western powers. From 1915-1934, U.S. forces occupied Haiti, setting up a Constitution that allowed for foreign ownership of land and later installing a modern army that propped up a 29-year dictatorship shared between François Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier.

Meanwhile, due to its geographic positioning as a neighbor to Cuba, the international community fed Haiti with aid, ensuring its support during the Cold War. However, when the younger, then-dictator Duvalier fled the country in 1986, Haiti's creditors forced the country's people to repay the debts.

Poverty Today

Currently, Haiti's debt is estimated at $1.7 billion, and Haiti pays $1 million in debt service per week. This far outweighs its spending on health care, education, infrastructure or agriculture. Many of the loan conditions by the IMF have forced the government to stop providing public services, including education, water and sanitation

Today, half of Haiti's people live under $1 per day, and fully 80 percent of people live under $2 per day. One in eight children die before their fifth birthday. While some major strides in education have been made - around half the population can't read or write, and more than 60% are unemployed. Such longstanding and widespread socioeconomic struggle has facilitated and spawned violence. Foreign arms and troops have flooded the country, making for a militarized state with a high cost of living, theft, kidnapping, extortion, hunger and brutality rather than protection from the police.

Haiti's primary industry – agriculture – is unsustainable because of trade policies and conditionalities imposed by countries like the United States. Under stipulated conditions, imported agricultural products such as rice are less expensive than home-grown ones, putting local farms and food producers out of business. For imported goods, the Haitian elite fixes prices to make a profit, increasing the cost of basic necessities and contributing to the rising cost of living.

Moreover, political instability, including a 2001 coup, has triggered embargoes on trade. Factories have closed, and companies have set up shop elsewhere, leaving tens of thousands of people unemployed. Recent lifting of U.S. tariffs on goods coming from Haiti in 2006 provided some respite, but created temporary, subcontracting work rather than deep investments in industry or development.

Currently, the Haitian government seems sandwiched between international debt obligations and responsibilities towards its people, which it cannot meet. Moreover, countries in the Caribbean region, who don't have the mass of labor or production power of economic ‘engines' like Brazil, India and China, are often neglected in development dialogue and not high on the priority list to receive funds and support for infrastructure development.

As in many other places in the world, out of necessity rather than choice, women step in to fill the gaps.

Haitian Women as Pillars

Historically, many women were employed in Haiti's factories or worked as farmers. Yet recent shifts have caused women to take up work in the already crowded informal sector. Many are self-employed - owning home-based stores selling small wares and clothing, cooking food to sell on the streets or working as domestic servants. Some also work in the sex industry.

The small percentage of women who still work in garment factories face exploitative working conditions, but they have been mobilizing for labor rights and national policy reform to keep factories open while paying living wages and ensuring fair working conditions.

Additionally, Haitian women and their allies both inside and outside Haiti have been fighting for debt cancellation. In June 2009, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Inter-American Development Bank cancelled a significant portion - $1.2 billion - of Haiti's debt. Other creditors, including the Canadian government, have followed suit. Now, campaigns are focused on boosting national industry and production.

Meanwhile, NGOs such as Dwa Famn, Fonkoze, the Lambi Fund and Partners in Health support women with counseling, basic education, skills-training, loans and health care, including women who have survived domestic or other forms of violence. These and other civil-society organizations employ a community-based approach and support women's leadership development, such that women determine their own needs and gain skills to lead efforts for change.

Additionally, women continue to share and raise awareness about Haiti's history and contemporary life locally and transnationally as artists, musicians and writers. Many draw and paint scenes of current-day joys and sorrows while others invoke words and songs dating back to slave rebellions. These expressions serve as reminders of the strength of ancestors and past struggles as well as the power of art in communicating across borders.

Haitian feminist journalist Mirlene Joanis, who is interviewed in the Poto Mitan film, writes “When you see how Haitians are slaving away in the streets, it reminds you of an epoch a long time ago when our ancestors were slaves. In those days, it was only human force that made the country rich.” Today, such a tradition continues, in which women make the country 'rich' - not only through their economic contributions but also through their continuation of the resistance and push for reform that has characterized Haiti since its founding.