This page addresses the topic of gender in Haiti through exploring multiple aspects of life for Haitian women. Our research focuses specifically on women and the adversity they face living in an impoverished country in that poverty and wide income gaps can be directly correlated with gender inequality. Women bear the brunt of this neoliberal globalization. However, Haitian women are organized in their effort to change things. Women play a key role in Haitian culture and are referred to as the “Poto Mitan”, or “Central Pillar” of familial and social structures.
The issues that will be addressed include:
1. Women’s Health
2. Violence Against Women
3. Women’s Status in Rural Haiti
4. Professional Women in Haiti
5. Family Roles
6. Women’s History
7. Storytelling & Haitian Women’s Cultures
Haitian Women have a life expectancy of 62.8 years, whereas their neighbors in the Dominican Republic live an average of 75.5 years. The country has an infant mortality rate of 57 deaths per 1,000 live births, and one the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, 630 per 100,000 live birth (10).
As a difficult reality for Haitian mothers, there are not enough resources to educate and provide care for those in pregnancy. Many postnatal deaths occur from women delay seeking treatment, from the amount of time it takes to reach a treatment center, and from the lack of available resources and or physicians at the care center. And finally, in a study conducted by Healthcare for Women International, 1/3 of the patients interviewed did not seek medical care during their pregnancy due to lack of funds (12).
Here is a link to a study published by Reproductive Health and Response Crises Consortium that discusses reproductive health in Haiti and offers a series of potential solutions that can be used in working towards a healthier nation. R.H.R.C.C believes everyone has the right to quality reproductive health care (addressing in particular, people affected by natural disasters and conflict (11).
Funds donated to alleviate some of these issues often go to International NGOs, which though helpful on a short term basis, have been found to not promote long term sustainability. Investments need to be made in community-based organizations that operate on a smaller scale because these operations may better address primary / acute needs such as education, family planning, and the training of local health professionals.
Partners in Health (PIH) is an example of one NGO that focuses on sustainability in the aid they provide. They are an international organization based here in Boston, Massachusetts and are committed to improving the health of impoverished people. They focus on alleviating suffering and imparting the knowledge to prevent and treat future problems to the local people so that care can be sustainable. One of their areas of focus is women’s health, and they work specifically to reduce maternal mortality and improve reproductive health.
Violence against Women
Since Haiti won its independence in 1804, it has been viewed as the victim of corruption, both on a national level and an international level. Haiti has never really had the chance to grow into a thriving independent nation and has instead been a culture that survived without much infrastructure and order. Violence against women is a huge and difficult to address problem. After the ousting of political leader Aristide in 1991, women were systematically raped as a means of ensuring political power. When Aristide was ousted once again in 2004, rape was brought back as weapon of oppression. According to the Lancet Medical Review, 19,0000 per 100,000 women were raped between February 2004 and December 2005. More, until 2005, rape was considered a crime of passion, and marriage to the rapist or financial compensation is often the result (4). It was, and still is in some ways, an accepted act of violence.
Only a small percentage of reported rape cases are filed with authorities, the justice system is in its own state of disarray, and the perpetrators are rarely brought to justice. The earthquake exacerbated this issue because it left 680,000 people living in tent camps. These camps are difficult to protect and, at the present, rape is an increasing problem (6).
There is a Haitian Ministry of Women’s Affairs that works to promote women’s rights. It was spearheaded by Myriam Merlet, Magalie Marcelin, Anne Marie Coriolan, and Myrna Narcisse, who fought to expose the rape culture and prevent domestic violence against women. All four were killed in the 2010 earthquake. They laid the groundwork for women to continue and ultimately win the fight for equality.
Poto Mitan is an organization of Haitian women that stand for women’s rights, equality, and empowerment. The name “Poto Mitan” represents the woman’s role as the central pillar in the Haitian Family. Their goal is to show women in Haiti, not as victims, not as props to illustrate the terrible conditions of “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere”, but as real people with histories, goals, and most importantly, dignity.
KOFAVIV is and organization of Haitian Women who are rape survivors, for women that are rape survivors. They work closely with MADRE, and international women’s rights organization. They offer women safe places to meet and work towards rebuilding their communities in the wake of the 2010 Earthquake, training for women on how to stay safe, and facilitate psyco-social support groups to help rape victims get their lives back together.
Women’s Status in Rural Haiti
The most common economic activity for women in rural Haiti is in the agricultural sector. Partner work is often required in the fields because of the many different steps needed to harvest and manage the crops. Since partner-work was heavily required, women played complimentary roles with men. While the men were responsible for farming and other work such as tilling or using heavy machinery, the women often assisted the men, with tasks such as harvesting and weeding (8).
Women in rural Haiti also take the cultivated goods to sell at the market. Many rural women are full-time market traders. Those who work as full-time market traders have the potential to become economically independent, and do not need to share their income with their husbands. However, many stay confined to traditional roles and activities (cooking and cleaning) and do not have the same social status as men (13).
Professional Women in Haiti
Most doctors, politicians, teachers, school directors, spiritual leaders (both catholic and voodoo) in Haiti are men. Women have made the most progress infiltrating the job market in medicine (Nurse Practitioners are women only). Women are also successful in areas of marketing, particularly with Tobacco, produce, and fish. Many women specialize in a particular commodity and work as marchann, traveling between urban and rural areas, redistributing goods to smaller scale markets. Urban middle class and elite women have similar social statuses to women in developed countries, but the majority of the population of Haiti is comprised of the urban poor, who do not have the same opportunities or status as men (13).
In terms of marriage, men are perceived to have a higher power in the relationship. Polygamy is still practiced in some rural areas of Haiti. At any given time around 10% of married men have more than one wife and while it is not legal, it is recognized and accepted by the community (13).
In poorer areas of Haiti, the most common marital relationship among peasants and other lower class people is known as plasaj. This type of relationship is based around economic reasons. In the beginning of a plasaj relationship, the husband and wife make an agreement on the type of role that they will fulfill in the relationship (6). As mentioned earlier, this is often related to their roles in the fields. Some agreements made prior to marriage are that the husband has to cultivate at least one plot of land for the wife, while the wife performs household tasks, such as taking care of the kids, cooking, and cleaning. There are limited educational opportunities for women, which explains why poorer women are limited to performing jobs within a household. In many cases, the lack of educational opportunities makes it hard for women to find jobs, which therefore inhibits a women’s flexibility in the role they play in society (8).
Although both the male and female value children, and contributed to child care, it is typically the female who bears most of the burden of childcare, bringing them to school, making sure that they are being well-fed and healthy(6). Before the 1980s, woman had very few legal rights. They did not have a full right to property, even though they cultivated some of the land as well. Women’s rights were finally expanded through legislation in the 1980′s when Haiti ratified the CEDAW (convention to eradicate discrimination against women), but they are still under represented today, with only 25% of government employees being female. (8).
It is not uncommon for single mothers to be raising families in Haitian society. Single parenthood is seen as a common family arrangement. In few and rare cases, women are seen as the head of their household – primarily because they handle most of the domestic duties and childcare, as well as fulfill the role as the main nurturer of the family (13).
Beverly Bell is the associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, and she is the author of the article used for this page in the Huffington Post. Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years and is the author of a book titled Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance. Haitian women have been struggling for recognition throughout history. The earliest resistance was seen in 1792 when Cecile Fatiman helped lead a ceremony to launch the war of independence against the French slave owners (1). Due to the French rule of Haiti in the early history, women were looked upon as inferior and had no real rights or places in the community besides as mothers and workers. In 1794, Etienne Polverel wrote in a document, “It was acceptable for women to receive less pay than men, something many women on the plantations had contested in the intervening months”(5). Men believed that women could not do the same amount of work and therefore they should be paid less and not seen as equal. This inequality of the genders is shown blatantly in the Haitian Constitution, which was written in 1805. The Haitian Constitution and other documents can be found in the book, Slave Revolution in the Caribbean 1789-1804, by Laurent Dubois and John D. Garrigus. The book was written in 2006 and clarifies the complex issues surrounding the revolution. It also includes tools such as maps, illustrations, a chronology, and a selected bibliography. Article 9 of the Constitution states, “No one is worthy of being a Haitian if he is not a good father, a good husband, and, above all, a good soldier”(5). Where do the women fit into being a father or a husband? They do not. Males wrote the Constitution and as a result, females were looked down upon as the inferior gender.
(Excerpted from Edwidge Danticat’s narration of the Film, “Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of Global Community.”)
You remember, when sitting there braiding your daughter’s hair that she looks a lot like you at her age and like your mother and your grandmother before her. She is going to school. “Always use your 10 fingers your mother told you when your father took you out of school.” What is the use of school to a girl who cooks and cleans? A kitchen scholar? But the resistance of your ancestors boiling in you, kept the spirit alive. You use your 10 fingers, gripping the contours of a pen to write words for women.
You remember thinking, while braiding your daughter’s hair that she looks a lot like her mother, who looked a lot like her grandmother and her grandmother before her. Although you left your mother’s gravesite to find work in the city, you and your sister are as close as a needle in your hand or the bus on the crowded city. Sisters who must compete for limited housing and jobs but sisters who protect one another with all their might from violence of everyday life.
You remember thinking when braiding your daughter’s hair that she looks a lot like your mother and her mother, who worked their fingers to the bone to create a better life for you…uprooted from the soil, You plant on concrete and tin…harvesting the weeds of inequity that grow in the cracks of makeshift homes. Women like you are never listened to even as they cradle the world in their arms. Women like you, who speak up to the boss…even if it’s in a tongue that the privileged few don’t value…Creole.
You remember thinking, while braiding your daughter’s hair that she looks like the pictures of your grandmother, only a fading memory, since she died when you were just a baby. “Women are the pillars of society”, you are told. They hold up family, community, the country. Women bear life entrusted to them, life that is fragile and unjust when you leave the womb. But, you know that it doesn’t have to be this way…that another world is possible. If you can’t reach the promised land, you’ll give your shoes to you daughter.so that she can.
You remember thinking, when braiding your daughter’s hair, that she looks a lot like your Mother. Your mother looked a lot like your grandmother and her grandmother before her. You name each braid after the 999 women who are boiling in your blood…for their sweat, their pain, their tears.
One braid for your mother and her ancestors. One braid for your own struggles and victories. One braid for your daughter and her daughter after her. Like this, you link your past with your present and your future. Like this, you see hope and this is your testament to the Haitian women who lived, died and lived again.
Haiti After the Earthquake by Paul Farmer is a descriptive narrative that was published in 2011. Paul Farmer is the UN’s Deputy Special Envoy for Haiti and the Chair of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard. Didi Bertrand Farmer said, in Haiti After the Earthquake, “In Haiti, women are the centerpost- the potomitan- of our families and society.” Women in Haiti regard themselves as the backbone of the country. In the end of Paul Farmer’s novel, After the Earthquake, there are numerous stories narratives of other voices and their perspectives with reference to the Haitian earthquake. These are just a few of the stories that will be passed down to future generations. The above poem was woven throughout the documentary called Poto Mitan, which addresses the problems women are faced with in Haiti. The documentary hints towards the power of storytelling and the frequent usage of storytelling in Haiti. “But as soon as the sun went down, she would be at the center of things as she livened up and told stories. The neighborhood children rushed through their dinner and hastened to learn the next day’s lessons so they could sit on the steps beneath Granme Melina’s rocking chair and listen to her tales,” (3). This quote is from the novel Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat. The book is a biography and autobiography of Danticat’s life beginning in Haiti and ending with her new residence in the United States. She is also the author of numerous books, including Breath, Eyes, Memory, Krik? Krak!, The Farming of Bones, and The Dew Breaker.
(1) Bell, Beverly. “A History of Haitian Women’s Involvement.” Huffington Post. Web. 26 Nov. 2011.
(2) Cook Ross Inc. “Family Traditions and Gender Roles.” Background on Haiti & Haitian Health Culture. 2010
(3) Danticat, Edwidge. Brother, I’m Dying. New York: Vintage Books, 2007. Print.
(4) Doubossarskaia, Liza.Women in Haiti: A Violent History and Uncertain Future. National Organization for Women, 2010. Web. 29 November 2011.
(5) Dubois, Laurent and John D. Garrigus. Slave Revolution in the Caribbean 1789-1804. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006. Print.
(6) Faedi, Benedetta. “The Double Weakness Of Girls: Discrimination And Sexual Violence In Haiti.” Stanford Journal Of I international Law 44.1 (2008): 147-204. Index to Legal Periodicals & Books Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 29 Nov. 2011.
(7) Farmer, Paul. Haiti After the Earthquake. New York: Public Affairs, 2011. Print.
(9) Hugo, Victor. Bug-Jargal. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Editions, 2004. Print.
(10) John Snow Research & Training Institute, Inc. The Long Wait. Reproductive Health Care in Haiti. 2009. Web. 29 November 2011.
(11) JSI Research and Training Institute. www.Rhrc.org. Reproductive Health Response in Crises Consortium. ND. Web. 5 December, 2011.
(12) Kershaw, et al. “Health Seeking Behavior Among Pregnant Women In Rural Haiti.” Health Care For Women International 27.9 (2006): 822-838. CINAHL with Full Text. Web. 29 Nov. 2011
(13) Pierre, Jean. “Gender Roles and Family Relationships In Early Day Haitian Society.” Ezine Articles. 9 March 2007.
(14) Poto Mitan. Dir. Mary Becker. Film. Documentary: Educational Resources. June 2009.