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When a massive earthquake struck Haiti in January, 2010, it shone a spotlight on the need to ease the dangerous overcrowding of the capital city of Port-au-Prince. So, after responding to the disaster with emergency programs, Oxfam shifted some of our focus to the countryside. Together with our partners, we ramped up our program to reinvigorate the rice economy of the Artibonite Valley, with the goals of reducing rural poverty, contributing to food security in Haiti, and—by making rice farming more viable—counteracting the continuous pull to migrate from the country to the city. As Oxfam’s Elizabeth Stevens reports in a series of blog posts, Haiti’s rice farmers are embracing the program and making it their own.
My first meeting with a women’s group in Haiti was on a pitch-black night. At first there were just a few of us sitting on a porch, our faces lit by the eerie glow of a solar lamp, but every few minutes a new arrival emerged from the darkness, and soon the crowd was spilling out into the yard.
The Mouvement d’Aide des Femmes Liancourt-Payen de la commune de Verrettes (MAFLPV) is a key partner for Oxfam in the rice-growing Artibonite Valley. It’s a women’s organization that provides its members with access to low-interest loans so they can successfully market rice and whatever other goods they want to sell.
“We used to go to loan sharks when we needed money,” said Marie Melisma Robert, the founder and president of MAFLPV. She explained that the local moneylenders charge monthly interest of 25%. “When we couldn’t pay back the loans, we were arrested.” Now the women have access to credit at three percent – which can spell the difference between a successful business and spiraling debt.
That night the women told me story after story about how, with a source of fair credit, they can now make strategic business decisions, like when and where to sell a rice crop to earn the most income. They told me they are serious breadwinners now, and that this fact has altered the landscape of their lives—that they no longer put up with abuse from money lenders, difficult husbands, or anyone else who once had the financial upper hand. And they explained that now they are free to make more of the choices that matter most to them.
“Before, we didn’t have any value in the eyes of men. We used to have to depend on men to send our kids to school,” said one member. “Now, we don’t have to wait on our husbands. Without this business, there was no way we could send the kids to school; with this business, we can.”
I could have listened to them all night, but knowing what exhausting lives these women lead—handling farms, businesses, child care, and household work—I felt we should let them get some rest, so after a couple of hours I said a grateful farewell and packed up to leave. But suddenly the women rose to their feet and began to sing to us. It was a song in Creole about hardship and resilience, but there together in the little pool of light they had created for themselves, it sounded more than anything like a song of joy.
We are reeds, we are reeds.
This is what we are.
You can cut our stalk,
You can cut our root;
Right after it rains,
We will rise again.