MOVING PARTS: HOW HAITIAN WOMEN NAVIGATE ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITIES DURING MIGRATION

By Pia Molina

Women of the La Saline market, Haiti
Jan Sochor Photography

ABSTRACT

As a product of a colonial history of slavery, foreign interventions and brutal dictatorships, modern-day Haiti finds itself having a lack of economic opportunities, institutional support, and an overall deficiency of resources to satisfy the needs of its citizens. Migration abroad and internally offers Haitians relief from the ineffective system that continues to disadvantage their development. Drawing from Giyatri Spivak’s description of the subaltern, I aim to challenge the repeated depiction of the Haitian woman as both superhuman in her strength and silent in her resistance. By outlining the crucial role of Haitian women in migration patterns and the country’s economy before and after the 2010 earthquake, I position them as key figures in the Haitian Studies’ focus of decolonizing the common perceptions presented of Haiti. After the devastation of the 2010 earthquake, Haitian women were forsaken to some of precarious economic and social consequences from the disaster. Traditional travel abroad and transnational tactics continue to be unsettled by the emergence of targeted immigration policies against Haitians, particularly hampering women’s economic prospects. Migration within the country has served as way to fulfill their current roles as head of household, performing as crucial forces of reconstruction.

Key Words: Migration, Economic Opportunities, Decolonization, Immigrants, Migrants, Businesswomen, Community, Radical Change, Madan sara

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Women’s economic freedom challenges the common notion of Third World women as passive and silent in their lived experiences. Image from Christian World Service.

Introduction

For countries such as Haiti, migration occurs as a way to seek opportunity and freedom elsewhere in the face of political, economic and social repression (Gammage 2004). Migration on the periphery refers to the movement of generally rural residents who rely periodic trips abroad to sustain their families through remittances (Keys, et al. 2015). Even prior to the devastation of the 2010 earthquake, Haitian migration flows experienced feminization both internally and abroad (Petrozziello and Wooding 2013). As immigrants, women actively create new opportunities for economic development, even when the structures around them aim to limit their ability to do so. Due to the silent and less visible nature of women’s work, however, they are persistently excluded from discussions about migration and economic development at institutional levels (Petrozziello and Wooding 2013). Nevertheless, Haitian women’s patterns of migration merit exploration for the nuanced ways in which they both contribute to the Haitian economy as they simultaneously resist their designation as second-class citizens in their own country and abroad.

Nou se revolisyonè, nou spran swen youn lot

(We are revolutionaries; we take care of each other).

—Nancy, a street-food vendor in Jacmel (Beasley 2012)

The Vulnerability and Resilience of Haitian Women as Immigrants

In discussions about migration, women are often discussed as second-class actors. Their plans to move or participate in the process of migration, whether internally or abroad, has been collapsed to their role as partners, mothers, caregivers – anything but individuals with agency. The stereotype that women are not political activists but rather just fulfill care-giver roles when necessary dictates the way in which women’s reasons for migration are explored (Gammage 2004). Yet as members of transmigrant populations and increasingly part of the diaspora, women are key actors in changing the economic landscape of Haiti, both, in the country and abroad (Gammage 2004). These radical changes, however, can only be achieved if they are grounded in the reality of Haitian women’s life that prioritizes solidarity their husbands and sons; their socioeconomic class; and their identity as women of color in what Schuller calls the outer-periphery (See Sacks) (Schuller 2015). Women organizations in Haiti have called for pressing need to make radical economic changes in order to address the women’s conditions in the country (Schuller 2015). In discussing how women handle patterns of migration and the changes that follow, I hope not to portray women as superhuman in their resilience, but rather speaking from a place that seeks to understand, I hope to highlight how their everyday and ordinary role in migration and economic development revitalizes their humanity – a quality not always extended to them by current scholarship.

This silencing of Haitian women’s experience with migration and overall is often read as Haitian women not being able to speak up or perform acts of resistance. Author Myriam Chancy challenges this notion of the Haitian woman being default to a category of sub-altern. She writes, “In actuality, Third World women articulate themselves through daily acts of resistance, organized political activism, and writing manifestoes” (Chancy 1997). Even with the strict laws imposed against the in the Dominican Republic, women continued to sell clothes and food, apply hair extensions, and work as domestic employees (Gonzalez 2016). When the 2010 earthquake devastated Haiti, women were forced to migrate internally and they became key figures in the country’s reconstruction efforts. Overall, the Haitian woman is a formidable force with vigorous means of dictating herself within an economic system that both expects her to fail but desperately needs her to succeed.

MIGRATION TO THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

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The Dominican Republic’s deep history of anti-Haitianism has recently manifested in immigration policies that aim to exclude and deport Haitians from entering their neighboring country. Image from the New York Times

Complexity and diversity have been described as one of the hallmark features of the Caribbean (Trouillot 1992). Since their existence as one island under Hispaniola, Haiti and the Dominican Republic have been densely intertwined in their politics, social development, and economic markets. Throughout their history, Haitians citizens have experienced a tumultuous history of anti-Haitianism and prejudice against Afro Caribbeans that is arguably rooted in the Dominican identity (Jayaram 2010). Nevertheless, the border region of the two island nations have historically been places of economic exchange for both Haitians and Dominicans, with women at the forefront of this interchange (Roebling 2009). Transnational locations like the border markets in the Dominican Republic serve customers and sellers of both nationalities as a significant source of economic earnings (Petrozziello and Wooding 2013). For Haitian women, the market provides opportunities for both economic independence and stability. However, when the Dominican government ramped up efforts against Haitian nationals by closing the border, segregating the market, and repatriating almost 21,000 Haitians, women faced unique economic and social challenges (Petrozziello and Wooding 2013).  Due to a lack of opportunity elsewhere on the islands, Haitian women continued crossing the border at unofficial points to reach the market, often leaving them vulnerable to attacks and violations from strangers (Gonzalez 2016). Tactics, like higher crossing fees, were also implemented to prevent Haitian women from crossing into the market.

Furthermore, the threat and impending reality of a closed border region, has left Haitian women with the burden of figuring out what the impending legal restrictions would mean for their children (Gonzalez 2016). In 2013, the Dominican Constitutional Court added new requirements for Dominican citizenship, including the provision that anyone born after 1929 must have at least one parent of Dominican Blood. The new law not only affected recent Haitian migrants but also Dominicans of Haitian descent who had lived in the country for generations (Gonzalez 2016). Moreover, in 2014, the Dominican government called for a national plan that required foreigners to regularize their status by June 2015. The intentional targeting of Haitians – especially, Haitian mothers – disadvantaged a population already reeling from the effects of disasters such as the 2010 earthquake and cholera outbreak. Many women who chose to stay in the country, despite these laws, were made invisible. Undocumented immigrants were relegated to a life outside of the surveillance and purview of the Dominican government. In particular, Haitian-Dominican women, even if documented, continue to be left out of the social programs that help foster a decent life in the Dominican Republic (Gonzalez 2016). With a whole system working against them, the ways in which Haitian women successfully navigate the barriers imposed on them goes unnoticed. For their efforts are subtle and silent, yet essential to the understanding of their agency as not only women but also, more generally, as Haitians.

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Despite their historic and demographic similarities, the two island nations have long endured a record of tumultuous interactions. Image from Vox.com

As seen, Haitian women are often left out of the narratives and discussions that disproportionately affect their agency as citizens, mothers, and creators of economic opportunities. Madan saras are Haitian business women who make their living by traveling between villages, towns, and cities selling goods (Shenaz Hossein 2015). Through the work, Madan saras connect buyers and sellers, creating an entrepreneurial culture that rewards the creative solutions to a situation of stagnant poverty that dictates the livelihood of many Haitians (Shenaz Hossein 2015). Yet, while Haitian society recognizes the contributions of Haitian women as businesswomen, legislation protecting women from the possibility of gender-based violence continues to be scarce (Shenaz Hossein 2015). Thus, the resilience of women in Haiti is encouraged as cultural component that is valued as a public demonstration to the international community of Haiti’s overall ability to bounce back – women are reduced as bearers of pain and strength to the rest of the world.

“In actuality, Third World women articulate themselves through daily acts of resistance, organized political activism, and writing manifestoes”

Myriam Chancy (1997)

 

INTERNAL MIGRATION AND DISPLACEMENT

 

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Image by Andre Lambertson, Haiti, 2010.

While migration across the border into the Dominican Republic and abroad to the United States has been commonly understood as part of the modern-day Haitian experience, the migration of women after the 2010 earthquake occurred mainly within the borders of the country (Petrozziello and Wooding 2013). With the limited financial resources and trends of closing borders, the option to leave was not always available, pressing women in Haiti to seek alternative opportunities within their own country. These opportunities, however, were not readily available and were often constrained to urban centers, such as Port-Au-Prince. Additionally, women’s agency has been limitedly explored due to their assumed default role as accompanying spouses (Gammage 2004). Nevertheless, as Haiti’s internal migration continues to be dominated by women — the focus on their motivations, successes and trials remain important to explore for the ways in which they actively characterize the re-building efforts of the country.

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Haitian women are able to find economic opportunities through markets and food enterprises in Haiti’s urban areas. Image by Heart to Heart International

The changes in labor migration increasingly led to Haitian women taking up a leading role in the agricultural sector of the country. At the same time, the rural and agricultural areas of the country were growing increasingly narrow in their ability to provide an adequate living wage (See Joseph).Prior to the 2010 earthquake, these factors continuously pushed women to seek jobs as care-providers in the more urban areas, particularly in the capital city (Gammage 2004). The gender gap in wages, however, continued to widen because women’s work is perceived as reproductive and hard to capitalize in the larger economic system (Verner, Dorte; World Bank 2008). Thus, when women migrate to urban areas, they are often innovators in the informal economy – they meet their needs while also providing fundamental services for the community at large (Beasley 2012). In the past, women have been crucial in filling roles that may have originally belonged to men. However, when migrating, women tend not be subjects of male dominated jobs but rather they work to monetize labor roles that are already deemed to be for women, such as cooking and care-taking (Beasley 2012). While the roles that women perform are treated as superfluous, in reality, they function as components of a spirited society.

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After the earthquake, organizations giving foreign aid focused on distributing it to women. Image by NPR

When the 2010 earthquake left Haiti destroyed, the movement of internally displaced persons grew exponentially. Temporary camps were set up as a way of mitigating the devasting effects of the disaster. However, they actually functioned as institutional manners of disadvantaging the economic development and overall social progress that was being created by women before the disaster occurred (Schuller 2015). Nevertheless, Haitian women remained present through efforts of advocacy and work with aid agencies. Common knowledge amongst aid organizations favored giving money to women because of the greater progress it would guarantee – women were sure to prioritize feeding themselves and their children, where men were known to spend it on themselves only (Schuller 2015). Yet, women who were given the role as head-of-households and received the foreign aid were vulnerable to acts of gender-based violence due to the challenge this presented to normative gender roles and fragile masculinity (See Khawly).  Without women present in the important decision-making committees that planned out and relayed humanitarian efforts, these acts of violence often stayed as a known truth without any initiatives to address it. Women are excluded from programs such as job creation initiatives and gender needs after disasters (such as health needs of pregnant women) but the both institutions and society at large continues to expect women to be an active part of community recovery efforts (Padget and Warnecke 2011).

CONCLUSION 

  As Haitian women make up 41.4% of the country’s population, the call for radical change in their inclusion of government policies after the internal and international displacement caused by the 2010 earthquake remains crucial (Padget and Warnecke 2011). Their role as care-takers, mothers, and providers plays an essential role in fortifying the language of resiliency and agency that has characterized the more nuanced research efforts on Haiti. Haitian women are creative and powerful in their search for economic opportunities and rebuilding efforts but they are not treated as such by the governmental and international institutions that run the country. Their voices, however, should not be confused as passive and silent – women demonstrate their agency through the creation of alternative ways to attain economic because the system was not produced for them to succeed. The radical change needed for economic prosperity of women would call for a recognition of the work that women already do.  When discussing migration, the disparate treatment of men and women is only exacerbated by the lack of institutional and legal structure in place to address the needs of its citizen at home and abroad. Rather than pinning the women of Haiti as resilient, therefore capable of handling this inequality with grace, the Haitian government and the larger society should start to give women a dignified place in the social, cultural and political processes of decision making. In Haiti, women take care of their people. It is time for the people to care for Haitian women.

 

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Image found on Pinterest.com

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Beasley, Myron M. 2012. “Women, Sabotaj, and Underground Food Economies in Haiti .” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 33-44.

Chancy, Myriam. 1997. “Nou là! Haitian Feminism as the Crossroads Politics of Theory and Action.” In Framing Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women, by Chancy Myriam, 24-45. Rutgers University Press.

Gammage, Sarah. 2004. “Exercising Exit, Voice and Loyalty: A Gender Perspective on Transnationalism in Haiti.” Development and Change 743-771.

Gonzalez, Ivet. 2016. “Women of Haitian Descent Bear the Brunt of Dominican Migration Policy.” Inter Press Service, February 5. http://www.ipsnews.net/2016/02/women-of-haitian-descent-bear-the-brunt-of-dominican-migration-policy/.

Jayaram, Kiran. 2010. “Capital Changes: Haitian Migrants in the Contemporary Dominican Republic.” Caribbean Quarterly 31-54.

Keys, Hunter M., Bonnie N. Kaiser, Jennifer W. Foster, Rosa Y. Burgos Minaya, and Brandon A. Kohrt. 2015. “Perceived discrimination, humiliation, and mental health: a mixed methods study among Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic.” Ethnicity and Health, Vol.20 219-240.

Lacet, Castagna. 2016. “Fanm Vanyan: A Cultural Interpretation of Resilience in Haitian Women.” Journal of International Women’s Studies 45-58.

Padget, Andrew, and Tonia Warnecke. 2011. “Diamonds in the Rubble: The Women of Haiti.” Journal of Economic Issues 527-557.

Petrozziello, Allison, and Bridget Wooding. 2013. “New Challenges for the Realisation of Migrants’ Rights Following the Haiti 2010 Earthquake: Haitian Women on the Borderlands.” Bulletin of Latin American Research, Vol. 32, No. 4, 407-420.

Roebling, Elizabeth Eames. 2009. “Dominican Republic/Haiti: Border Marker Embodies Inequalities.” Inter Press Service News Agency, April 29. Accessed (http://www.ipsnews.net/2009/04/dominican-republic-haiti-border-market-embodies-inequalities/).

Schuller, Mark. 2015. ““Pa Manyen Fanm Nan Konsa”: Intersectionality, Structural Violence, and Vulnerability Before and After Haiti’s Earthquake.” Feminist Studies 184-210.

Shenaz Hossein, Caroline. 2015. “Black women in the marketplace: everyday gender-based risks against Haiti’s madan saras (women traders).” Work Organisation, Labour and Globalization 36-51.

Verner, Dorte. 2008. “Labor Markets in Rural and Urban Haiti : Based on the First Household Survey for Haiti.” Policy Research Working Paper; No. 4574. World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/6503 

 

Featured image found at: CNN.com 

 

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