As I watched the powerful feminist speeches at the Academy Awards this week, I reflected on my experiences in Haiti that have made me an advocate and messenger for women not only in the developing world but also here in the US. Unlike women in Hollywood, Haitian women often don’t have a voice – either in their homes or their communities – but what happens outside their sphere of influence can make an immense difference in their daily lives.
Haitian women, similar to women in most developing world countries, perform all of the household and child-rearing chores with no help from their male spouses. These tasks are often accomplished without the benefit of running water or a steady supply of electricity. No refrigerator, washing machine, microwave, toilet. Monetary funds are controlled by their spouse and may be wasted on drink and games of chances, while the pantry is empty of food and the kids need new shoes. Physical and emotional abuse is overlooked by a society that places a lower value on females.
Washing clothes at the river
These same women have taught me what perseverance and a source of income can accomplish. Each year when I return to Haiti, I am able to meet with the newest microloan group and connect with some of our previous Helping Haiti Work loan recipients. I impress on the women who have been successful in loan repayment that they owe it to the new loan groups to give them advice and support. Numerous women have related their personal experiences of the benefits of the loans. Not only do the profits help with clothing and food, but the women are given a higher status in both their immediate family and in the community. Their husbands treat them better because they are bringing money into the family. The women have control over how the income is to be used. Their children see them as a more capable adult and that hard work has more than one dividend. Other women in the larger community ask their advice and apply for the microloan program.
We are also seeing some of these same changes in the women employed by our sewing program. They have brought us ideas as to what products they think will sell well in the market rather than only sewing the reusable menstrual pad kits and diapers. One of our seamstresses was proud to use some of her funds to pay for a needed surgery for herself. Each time we visit with them they are becoming more outspoken and empowered.
My journey to make all of this happen also requires perseverance and the commitment to empowering Haitians so that they are better able to help themselves and each other. I am often asked why I don’t focus my fundraising efforts on causes that would benefit women in the US rather than Haiti (that is another blog post in itself). Just as the Hollywood elite are using the #TimesUp movement to bring recognition to those women who may not have a voice, I hope that the monetary loans provided by Helping Haiti Work and the examples of female leadership by our participants will touch many more women than just the ones that we serve.
Come join us this weekend as we listen to great music from the 60’s and 70’s by the band Morpheus and help to raise money so that more women in Haiti can be empowered to make a difference in their lives. Visit the homepage for details and to purchase tickets.
This movie, which opened this weekend at area theaters, is about a newly married Indian man who soon realized the plight of many women when they needed to choose between sanitary supplies and food. He became obsessed with producing low cost disposable pads and during his journey ended up creating jobs for women as they produced the pads that he developed. Check it out. He also has a TED talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/arunachalam_muruganantham_how_i_started_a_sanitary_napkin_revolution
Many of the seamstresses that we employ to construct the reusable menstrual pad kits are women in their 40’s and 50’s. Due to age and a lack of adequate lighting in their homes, the visual skills that are required for the detailed work can be frustrating. A recent volunteer to Haiti, Kris Dirks, brought reading glasses in different magnifications that were donated by Eye West Vision Clinic in Rogers, MN. The seamstresses were amazed that with the glasses they could read the letters on a small piece of paper held out in front of them.
The seamstresses had asked for other projects that they could complete with the scraps of fabric that they create when making the menstrual pad kits. Kris and her daughter Laura designed small blankets that use 4 inch squares of cotton fabric quilted together for the top. The women enjoyed arranging the squares into different color patterns and then learning how to sew the squares together and attach a flannel backing. They plan on marketing the blankets to expectant mothers to use.
I first visited Haiti in 2006. It was not love at first sight, or even a like. I spent a week on a medical mission trip, missing my family and sweating in the operating room while I performed some of the most difficult surgical cases of my career, without adequate lighting and unfamiliar instruments. Climbing the steps of the airplane to return home was a welcome relief from the searing heat of the tarmac and the aroma that is Haiti (think rotting fruit mixed with exhaust fumes and burning charcoal). I’m not sure when the amnesia set in over the next few months, but I was soon planning my return visit the following year. 15 or so trips later, I look forward each visit to spending time in a country that I have visited more frequently than any other.
My trip last week coincided with the recent comments about Haiti from President Trump. While he was ranting about the immigration of Haitians to America, I was participating in distributing microloans to a new group of 10 Haitian businesswomen. The women received $200 to help fund their small businesses and will be responsible for paying back the loan over 10 months with a low rate of interest. Each of these women has worked hard selling clothes, food, shoes and motor oil to support their families. This is in addition to the daily tasks that a Haitian woman must perform without the benefit of running water or electricity. Entitled or lazy would be the least descriptive terms that I would use.
The following day I worked with one of the Haitian seamstresses that we employ to construct reusable menstrual pads for distribution to Haitian girls. She uses a manual sewing machine and is able to make $4 a day working 5-6 hours. She also participates in menstrual hygiene instruction at area schools so that young girls will have the benefit of knowledge about their bodies and not the fear that her generation of women experienced. She has no desire to immigrate to America away from her family, but wants the opportunity to make her life in Haiti more comfortable.
I am not quite sure why this country has occupied so much of my time, energy and pulled at my heart. The opportunity to leave a frigid Minnesota in January makes the idea of sweating in the operating room more palatable. But is much more than that. Haiti is a land of contradictions – corruption and family strength, sadness and laughter, illiteracy and value of education. There is very little black and white, rather many shades of grey. But it makes my brain think and try new ideas, something that is more difficult to do in my American job. I have been the recipient of many opportunities in the US, and although I have worked hard and been the first to graduate college in my immediate family, there were many along the way that provided encouragement and a helping hand. I would like to think that I can be that helping hand for Haitians – providing business loans for women, saving a baby’s life when her mother is suffering from seizures/eclampsia, removing an enlarged uterus so that a woman can better perform her household chores and providing education and hygiene products so that young girls are able to stay in school during their period. Yes, Haiti is a destitute country that has suffered from both outside forces and its own corruption. But its people are willing to change that – if we would only give them a fighting chance. And remarks such as those from our President don’t help to provide that chance.
Saturday, January 20th is the next workday for Days For Girls. We are meeting from 9 to 4 at St. Mary on the Lake Catholic Church in Plymouth. Directions here
We have activities for everyone even if sewing is not your “thing”. Lunch and coffee/water are provided; extra snacks or sides are welcome. Come for an hour or two or for the day.
What to bring:
· Sewing Machine and/or serger
· Basic sewing supplies (polyester thread please)
· Large scissors marked with your name (may need for some of our non-sewers to use in cutting out bags and diaper kits)
· Donations for the Days For Girls kits
· Dark/bright cotton fabric for shields **see note below
· Bright/light fabric for bags **
· Dark/bright flannels for the liners **same fabric print guidelines
· Travel soaps
· Girls underwear size 10-14
· Zip-Lock 1 gallon sized bags (Not the slide lock)
There will be an opportunity to hear an update on the work our chapter has done and also to provide a monetary donation if you feel led to do so.
See you soon. Please forward this info to others who might like to help.
**Use good quality 100% cotton woven fabric similar to quilter’s cotton. No knits, flannels, corduroy, or home dec fabric.
· Pick colorful stain-busting fabrics, preferably botanicals, geometrics and batiks. Prints preferred.
· Fabrics and thread should be medium to dark in color to disguise stains
· Some prints are offensive or illegal in some communities. Prints with people, animals, faces and figures cannot be sent to Muslim communities. NO camouflage fabrics as these are illegal in many countries. Fabrics with food, bugs, reptiles, guns, knives, culture-specific themes as well as girly-glam should be avoided. Bugs, reptiles and animals are predators in some areas; fabrics including these are uncomfortable for the girls to wear and use. Butterflies are OK.
After returning from our annual surgical mission trip to Haiti in early 2011, one year post earthquake, I was frustrated by the lack of progress that was happening in Haiti and the mismanagement of donated funds. I had had sincere hopes about the possibility of change after witnessing the international outpouring of attention and donations. Visiting with our Haitian co-workers on that trip, I was made aware of their sense of defeat and dimming of eternal optimism. Maybe what was needed was a smaller, more personal effort so that Haitians could realize that they were not forgotten.
My original plan was to appeal to a few friends for donations, kick in some of my own money, and grant 10 women $200 microloans so that they would have improved working capital for their businesses. I met those original loan recipients 6 months later on our next medical trip. Thru an interpreter they expressed their appreciation and wanted me to know how this program was different from other programs. Different because we asked them what they wanted (cash for their small businesses), we did what we said we would do (provide the loans), and finally that we kept returning to fund more loans. After hearing this, I realized that we had the opportunity to make a small part of Haiti understand that the rest of the world still cared about them and wanted to help.
Just as the roads in Haiti are filled with potholes, the journey of HHW has not always been smooth. Cultural misunderstandings, failure of some small businesses and difficulties in accounting to name just a few. But I still see the shy smiles and sense of empowerment of our loan recipients after being handed that first sum of money that makes it all worthwhile. Five years ago I thought that our program was about giving money, but I now realize that it is about so much more. It is about creating hope for a better future and making these women aware that we have not forgotten about them. Consider making a donation so that we are able to create hope for more Haitian families.
This video is a good reminder of what we are trying to achieve with our mission at Helping Haiti Work. We work to empower women to help themselves and their communities by providing them with the resources – loans and sewing supplies – to make a livable wage. We will be expanding n 2018 and employing a Haitian to assist with obtaining orders and distribution of menstrual pad kits because we feel that they know their communities better than we do.
The majority of tailors in Haiti are men. You frequently see them sewing in the doorways of buildings surrounded by a group of men playing cards. For that reason, finding women who are experienced seamstresses was a bit difficult in the beginning. We had to be patient while less experienced seamstresses worked diligently to improve. Then we could finally approve their sewing skills as proficient and pay them for the products that were created. Now the sewing tables have been turned and our seamstresses are calling on their husbands and sons to help with the final kit assembly when a large order is being completed. The men are only too happy to help as the income that is being generated is making a large difference for their families.
Yvette and her husband have 5 children and live in Ranquitte, Haiti, a small village located in the mountains south of Cap Haitian. Prior to our Days for Girls sewing program, Yvette had the skills of a talented seamstress but was unable to find the materials or market for any of her projects. Our products of reusable menstrual pad kits and reusable diapers have provided her with both materials and an income to help to support her family and keep her children in school. Yvette has taken this project one step further in that she is training teenage girls in her neighborhood to sew so that we will have extra hands when large orders are placed. Unfortunately, Yvette was very sick earlier this year for a few months. Her 15 year old son stepped up and worked on sewing the reusable menstrual pad kits so that the family could continue to benefit from the income.
Our distribution building in Cap Haitian is slowly getting near completion. Elly Schreder was in Haiti this fall helping to complete a few large orders, deliver materials for new products and visit the local Haitian Rotary to provide information on our program. Although our sewing centers are located outside of Cap Haitian, in Limbe and Ranquitte, we are in need of a distribution site where completed reusable menstrual pad kits and diapers can be stored, materials for future kits collected, sewing machines repaired and customers pick up their orders. Our building front is located facing Highway One, the main highway that connects Cap Haitian to Port au Prince. Funds from Give to the Max Day will be used to complete the inside of our building as well as to create a sign outside advertising our presence. Consider Helping Haiti Work in your giving on November 16th.