First Person

With grease and wrenches, Haitian women upend stereotypes

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Classmates Merline Jacques, right, and Soeurette Charles. “We’re really proud to be agricultural mechanics,” said Charles. Photo: Anna Fawcus/Oxfam America

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, Haiti’s rice farmers are embracing the program and making it their own.

“Some of my women friends don’t like the idea of being in grease all day,” said Merline Jacques, a young woman I met in the town of Liancourt in the Artibonite Valley. But she doesn’t seem to mind.

Jacques is a pioneer—a woman setting out to become a professional mechanic in a country where such a thing is unheard of. She’s one of five female students in a class of forty who are taking a two-year course to learn not only mechanics but also a specialty within it: how to fix agricultural equipment.

“People have said that the Artibonite region alone could feed this whole country,” explained Chandelère Mayette, who helps run the course for an Oxfam partner. “But there’s a lack of technicians in agriculture.”

And that is costing farmers dearly. These days, getting a piece of equipment like a cultivator, rice mill, or irrigation pump fixed can take weeks, because the mechanics often have to be recruited from the Dominican Republic. A delay like that can ruin a season’s harvest, so training up young mechanics is an important part of strengthening the rice economy.

And the course is making a small contribution to stemming the migration from depressed rural areas to the overcrowded capital city: students I spoke to that day agreed that if it weren’t for these classes and the hope that they’ll lead to good jobs, they would probably have left for Port-au-Prince in search of work. Jacques was happy to stay in the Valley. She comes from a rice farming family and wants to lend a hand.

Like all the women in the class, she has worries: when it comes to mechanics, she told me, “People trust men more, so we’re scared of discrimination.” But Oxfam and our partner are betting they will succeed. The women are exceptionally motivated, and they quickly earned the respect of their teachers and peers.

“There shouldn’t be careers reserved for one sex. Women and men need to know that each can do what the other can,” said Oris Edrige, education director for Oxfam partner APPEL. Photo: Anna Fawcus/Oxfam America

“Generally, people think women can’t be mechanics, but the women we have are interested and have great aptitude for this,” their teacher, Marc Dieujuste, told me. “They’re some of the best students in the class—always at the board, always answering questions.”

“I make sure I go up to the board even if I don’t understand something,” said Jacques. “When we get it, the men applaud.

“And we make sure we get it,” she added. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+