Haitian Women: the backbone of society and economic life in Haiti -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Haitian Women: the backbone of society and economic life in Haiti

By Maria Luisa Zanelli

Walking the streets and markets of Port-au-Prince, Cabaret, the Central Plateau, Gonaives and Cape Haitien, the presence of women, busy with informal commerce and services is striking. The majority of these women earn less than US$1-$2 per day in an economy that has been at a standstill or decline for decades. Still, even with these conditions, women are clearly “the backbone of the informal economy.” [1] They are also the “family bank” [2] and in agriculture, “they do everything.” [3] Business savvy, acute determination and the ability to reproduce make women in Haiti the protagonists of family, community and national development.

A common image in Haiti is one of woman and young girls carting large containers of water, food and market goods using toks which balance the items on the crown of their heads. It is not culturally acceptable in Haiti for men to carry water by tok since it is strictly “woman’s work.” I’ve seen women who have had to traverse several miles while carrying construction materials on their heads or their backs, in order to accomplish simple improvements on their homes. [4]

Nevertheless, surveys reveal that some sectors of Haitian society consider Haitian women to be drastically undervalued, and note a marked historic perception that women are unfit for certain types of labor—for example, qualified construction.

Women make up about 52 percent of the Haitian population, with 42 percent under the age of 15. The average life-span of a woman in Haiti is 54 years, and over 60 percent are illiterate. Yet, 43 percent of households in Haiti are stalwartly women-headed. [5]

Women also make up a large part of the 61 percent of Haitians below the age of 24, half of whom are currently unemployed. Each year, another 110,000 youth enter the labor market, most not enrolled in school because they need to contribute to the household income. These youth lack marketable job skills and are faced with few opportunities. Women who also suffer wage discrimination bear an additional disadvantage.

The HFH Haiti’s Building and Training Center (BTC) program is part of a coordinated effort funded primarily by USAID that aims to create employment in vulnerable areas of Haiti, particularly targeting women and youth. Program objectives also included training in construction skills and supporting the creation and strengthening of existing small and micro-construction enterprises.

Initially, the BTC program failed to attract the intended young, female participants. The original strategy was for the community organizer to distribute course applications within each community. Later it was found that this person intentionally discriminated against women registering by not providing them with applications. As a result, HFH changed course and held community meetings with an open application process. The result was dramatic with marked increase in the total number of applicants, with a higher percentage of them being women. Of the applications for construction training, some 30 percent were women. The only ones registered to create a micro and small enterprise in construction were women. Additionally, a training curriculum in construction is currently being designed by a women’s focus group that takes into account the high level of illiteracy among women in Haiti.

When women were asked
[6] about their needs that must be addressed in order to improve income or employment, the top five answers were:

  • training
  • micro-credit
  • financial support
  • lower interest rates
  • help with equipment, materials and workspace.

The results indicated a strong agreement among women that there is a significant future in the informal sector.

At this moment it is impossible to measure the effects of the recent tropical storm Fay and Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna and Ike on such a fragile economy as Haiti. Family life, especially that of women heads of households have clearly suffered scathing impact. According to the National Manager Coordinator, this has left leaving feelings of hopelessness among an already vulnerable population. [7]

For this reason, it has never been more important for us to create projects which:

  • Cater toward gender equality resulting in better opportunities for women
  • Help reduce vulnerabilities and increase the decision-making abilities for women related to the conditions under which they develop and protect their lives
  • Value the work that women accomplish--contribute to a shift in the cultural perception that they are not of value
  • Consider violence against women as a barrier to their self-sustainability and empowerment
  • Promote a more effective use of human capital and especially the skills of women, including training for women areas such as construction, where they can potentially increase their income
  • Promote the value of the women’s role as agents of change, and their contribution to the wellbeing of their families and their communities
  • Ensure that women have a full understanding of their rights and their value as equals, and that they are able to defend these rights—specifically the right to adequate housing.

Maria Luisa Zanelli is the HFHI LAC Advocacy Project Manager and part of the BTC KATA Program Management Team for Haiti.


[1] Encuestas desarrolladlas para el Estudios “Haiti Workforce Gap Analysis, 2007 Draft Report CHF

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Visita a Hinche para la evaluación del Programa de micro-créditos de FONKOZE, 2007

[5] CEPAL, 2008

[6] Haiti Workforce Gap Analysis

[7] Barthelemy León, Haiti BTC National Manager Coordinator