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An economic lifeline for women in rural Haiti

Photo: Caroline Gluck/Oxfam

By Oxfam’s Humanitarian Press Officer, Caroline Gluck

“Unemployment is the only thing we have here”, declared Dumel Deralus, smiling grimly as we sat in the shell of a concrete building that will soon be a new expanded home for the Organisation for Community Development in Thomazeau, (ODECT), an Oxfam partner working to improve economic and social conditions in the town, about two hours drive north-east of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince.

Thomazeau is a rural area in western Haiti, home to about 52,000 inhabitants and picturesquely surrounded by mountains, little-touched by the earthquake two years ago. In fact, it was an area that saw a large influx of arrivals from Port-au-Prince immediately after the quake. But it is also economically deprived. Most people here are planteurs – small-scale farmers living off their land and selling what crops they can. But poor roads are a major problem in getting goods to markets. And, as Dumel told me, there are few economic opportunities available in the community.

Development after the earthquake

That’s also true across Haiti, where an estimated 75% of the population are not in salaried employment, and jobs are scarce. Unemployment is especially hard in rural areas, where there are few economic opportunities available, even the most casual of jobs. This was a major issue in Haiti, as much before the earthquake as now. But, after the quake, it’s also hampering people’s ability to rebuild their lives. According to an Oxfam survey last year, finding work is the top priority for most Haitians.

And that’s why a project which Oxfam supports in Thomazeau is raising the hopes of many women.

The women have their own section within ODECT known as RAFARE, or Rassemblement des Femmes pour l’Accès aux Ressources Économiques: Rallying Women to Access Economic Resources, to try to improve their economic status. The group owned one milling machine and earnt money processing grain brought into the centre by farmers and merchants. Oxfam hired them after the earthquake to help provide milled cereals which formed part of food kits that were distributed in the outdoor camps where people had sought shelter after the earthquake.

Oxfam is now helping the women again — with funds and training, including enlisting the help of expat Haitian experts with specific skills — as they move to a new phase. The group are modernising their service centre and expanding their operation. The small building where they’re currently located will double in size, allowing them to have storage facilities where they can stock processed and unprocessed grains; buy and market milled cereal grains. Oxfam has helped them to purchase two new grinding machines and is providing training and other equipment.

Buying local

The goal is to enable the women to run their operation as a proper business. They will buy and sell locally produced grain throughout the year, rather than just seasonally; and during lean times, in between the harvest periods, the surplus stocks can be released and sold in the local market.

“It will bring more economic opportunities here; there will be more jobs and more money coming in”, said Marie-Claude Estenfile, general secretary of RAFARE. “There was always a shortage of grains being sold in the local markets from April to June; but we will be able to provide processed grains during that period.

“It means people won’t have to travel an hour or more to some of the markets, like in Croix de Bouquets, 24km away, to buy what they need. It will be easier to purchase food locally and we will help to strengthen the supply chain. The markets will be busier; the money will benefit the local economy”.

Jobs and food security all year round

Having proper storage facilities and being able market their own cereals will enable the women to work all-year round, and not just stay open for business during the busy harvest period.

For Dumel Deralus, co-ordinator of the project and of ODECT, the project will create new jobs and improve people’s access to food. “It will guarantee people’s food security here. During the lean periods, people would have to buy imported rice and grain from other places. But we will have stocks to sell and supply to the local markets.”

RAFARE’s members are excited about the project, which has only just got underway. “It gives me hope for the future”, said 40 year old Hermircie Alfred. “I hope we can buy and sell the grains locally all year round; and we can make more profits.”

“There are very few job opportunities here”, said mother of eight, Alexina Augustin, 45. “The only jobs we can really find are selling cereals and this project will help us.

“I lost my home and land a few months ago during flooding and now I can’t send my children to school. This will be a lifeline for me” she said.

Find out more

Read more about our work in Haiti
Reflections on the Haiti earthquake