Investing in Haiti’s Women

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Medair’s cash-for-work projects employ women to work on construction and carpentry teams, leading to major benefits for the community.

Before the earthquake, most Haitians lived on very little. Still, most had a roof over their heads and a place to call their own. Then, on 12 January 2010, many of these modest sanctuaries were reduced to rubble. Humanitarian organisations rushed to the scene and began to employ Haitians to work in the vast reconstruction work at hand…

In Haiti, the physical work of rebuilding the country—carpentry, masonry, and roofing—is typically seen as men’s work. Women head more than 40 percent of households, but they are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to earning paid income in the country’s reconstruction.

“Gender equality is not something we can put off until later,” says Sheelagh Kathy Mangones, Country Programme Coordinator of U.N. Women in Haiti. “Women are at the forefront of any humanitarian disaster. They play key roles in ensuring the survival of families, rebuilding communities, and providing food and health care. It is not optional to empower women. It is essential.”

“Women are considered the backbone of Haitian society,” says Florance Paul, Haitian Medair Field Communications Assistant. “Many Haitian families are led by women who are single parents. A lot of aid investment in the country was in reconstruction but women did not always get the chance to participate in the emergency phase, where extra income was needed.”

Medair places a high priority on employing women in reconstruction teams. “According to research, income generated by women significantly improves the living conditions of their households in particular, and communities in general—significantly more than when men receive the same income,” says Miriam Lopez, Medair Shelter Project Manager. “Women are more likely than men to use their income in food, health care, house improvements, and schooling for their children.”

When Miriam arrived in December 2010, women made up just two percent of the workforce in our cash-for-work (CFW) programme, and most were cooks, cleaners, or water carriers. Thanks to a concerted effort by Miriam and the Medair team, the CFW workforce grew to 340 women—or 29 percent at the height of the project. Almost all of them worked on carpentry and construction teams. “I knew we were going to face some resistance in increasing female participation, but the response of the women surpassed my expectations from the first meeting we had,” says Miriam.

“I have been working in carpentry for Medair since June 2011 and I like it,” says 27-year-old Christella Charles, who trained in small-building construction for six months before starting work with Medair. “I have continued to acquire more knowledge in carpentry working with Medair. I have learned techniques about safer construction. I will use those in my community and in my own household.”

“Medair is the first NGO who thinks about and takes action for the women,” says fellow worker Binnadette Ouan. “I am proud to be part of the teams who are rebuilding Haiti.”

Supervisors, trainers, and male colleagues have been impressed with the work the women are doing. “The women work as hard as the men,” says Geraldine Guerrier, a Medair Technical Officer in La Montagne. “Sometimes they walk very far to get to work. They are reliable and their presence within the teams has improved the working atmosphere.”

“I really admire the women,” says Miriam. “It is tough physical labour and it isn’t easy to go against the grain of what is expected by the community and culture.”

Patrick Mama, a Haitian working for Medair as Assistant Shelter Project Manager, admits he had some initial doubts about how willing or able women would be to do this kind of work. “I thought they would not be willing to climb ladders or do work that would make their hands rough,” he says. “What I did not expect was to see them working on top of the roof or doing hard tasks like mixing cement.”

Patrick soon realised that his doubts were misplaced. “The women are really happy and really enjoy it. They feel important, they feel at ease... The misconceptions I had of women not being willing or able to do the work were not true. The success of this makes me happy.”

“The male workers respect me,” says 27-year-old CFW worker Marise Météllus. “The first day of work I was tired. Now, I can work as hard as the men. Everything the men can do, I can do it too.”

Along with the benefits of safer housing and a better-skilled workforce, the influx of workers’ money—for both women and men—is a boost to the local economy.

“Many people thought augmenting the number of women in our CFW programme would be impossible,” says Vanessa Nicholson, Medair Field Communications Officer, “But it was not only possible, it has been a triumph.”

“I attended a closing ceremony the other day in La Croix, where we have completed our building work,” continues Vanessa. “Women came to tell me they were able to send their children to school because Medair gave them the opportunity to work. They are very grateful they were given this chance.”

“Women in Haiti want an opportunity to be part of rebuilding Haiti,” concludes Vanessa. “It’s their country too and they want to put their hands and effort behind Haiti’s restoration.”