By Vania Andre
Twenty-eight year old Vionise Fortuna used to make her living selling paper napkins and plastic cups to merchants near the Haitian-Dominican border. With little training and skills on hand to leverage, finding a secure job, in a male-dominated country with high rates of unemployment seemed impossible. However, one day her luck would change after being recommended to a program for vocational training for women in Haiti.
Women face barriers to economic opportunity in Haiti because of “predominant social beliefs that they are inferior to men,” the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said in a report. “Discrimination against women is a structural feature in Haitian society.”
Although Haitian women face a dire situation in traditional and structural realms of the workforce in Haiti, they are nonetheless pillars of economic life for the small island country. The most visible members of Haiti’s economy are the Madan Saras, a term coined for female travelling merchants, who buy goods and resell them in marketplaces or along roadsides.
Fortuna was able to find her way out of this commerce cycle after taking part in the Pan American Development Foundation’s (PADF) LEAD program, which develops programs to support equal economic access for women. Under their program, Fortuna received a job with stove manufacturer SWITCH.
“I always dreamed of working a traditional profession,” she said. Here, I use “my skills in the company and I provide training to the street merchants who use the switch propane stoves.”
For International Women’s Day, PADF renewed their commitment to gender equality, and giving women an equal footing in Haiti’s economy.
“This year’s International Women’s Day theme is Pledge for Parity, which aims to increase gender parity around the world by encouraging people to take concrete steps in that direction,” PADF Haiti Country Director Nadia Cherrouk, said.
As part of their pledge, PADF plans to reach 60 million people in 2017, including 30 million women and youth. They also match grants to help grow women’s businesses and spur job creation and connect them with local business associations and banking institutions to obtain seed capital.
To date, the LEAD program has funded 11 women-owned or women-led businesses out of 32 funded enterprises and leveraged over $10 million in private capital. These businesses have created more than 9,000 direct and indirect jobs, of which 48 percent are held by women, across the Port-au-Prince, St. Marc and Cap-Haitian areas. They represent various sectors of the Haitian economy including agriculture and agri-business, recycling, manufacturing, retail, clean energy, apparel and service.
“PADF strongly believes that investing in women and girls is key to lessening income inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean and improving quality of life.”
Haiti is currently in a “reconstruction” phase. While in this transition period of rebuilding and renewal, unique opportunities have risen to shape the county’s future.
Women’s roles in reconstruction efforts are critical, Jennifer Rosenberg of New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity, said.
“One of the most critical factors that will determine which path Haiti takes is the extent to which gender concerns are brought to the fore in the reconstruction process,” she said. “For reconstruction to be successful addressing issues of gender must be a priority from the very beginning.”
Women’s participation in the labor force has direct economic benefits, and helps to alleviate poverty. According to the World Bank, 70 million women in Latin America and the Caribbean have joined the workforce in the past 20 years. This has reduced extreme poverty by 30 percent in the past decade.
“Providing girls and women with increased access to education, jobs, healthcare, and other services has a substantial ripple effect, improving not only individual quality of life, but also that of the surrounding community,” Cherrouk, said. “Women multiply the impact of investments by extending the benefits far beyond themselves.”