Women of SOPUDEP in Action: Micro-Credit (October 12, 2010)
"Haitian women, let us rise up to organize and fight against misery. Let us strike down the forces of division that chain us down and prevent us from recognizing the worth of our country. We must destroy division so that both men and women join hands to rebuild Haiti. Thus, our children and grand children will have a beautiful prosperous country that will once again be the pearl of the Antilles."
Réa Dol, Director and Co-Founder of SOPUDEP
Many, many women in Haiti are victims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse and discrimination. 70% of women in Haiti are the sole providers for their children as boyfriends or husbands often simply leave or have other families and cannot provide support.
Since the earthquake, 1.5 million people have been living in makeshift camps, which has intensified the hardships of everyday life, and the frustration among its residents is rising. Subsequently, abuses suffered by women are rising and there are a number of reports of girls as young as four being victims of rape. The population blames this on the lack of government support that should be there to help get them out of these camps or at the very least be providing proper shelter, food and security for them while they are there.
Food tickets that have been handed out in these camps or in the community since the quake are generally given to men to distribute. After tickets are given to friends and family, these men trade tickets to desperate women for sexual favors. Rea tells me of first-hand accounts from women she personally knows in her neighborhood and in the camps she frequently visits. When tickets are given to a family, it is also the women who must stand in the hot sun for hours on end waiting to get these rations.
This is why Rea started the micro-credit program for her women's group in March of this year! Women able to make their own work might be able to avoid these stifling lines, don't have to give their bodies for food in a moment of desperation and may find a way to support their children with absent husbands or boyfriends, or a way to leave abusive ones.
She said the idea came to her in the middle of the night: a vision of how to get her women working and back into Haiti's economy.
Rea had organized a women's march in the streets of Port-au-Prince during International Women's Day. After this march she received a call from a British organization by the name of "Global Women's Strike". They have an event called Mothers March and wanted to represent Haitian women. During the event, the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund (HERF) gave Rea a contribution of $1500 to feed her women. She asked her women, "Do you want food, which will be gone in a couple weeks, or do you want me to start a program so you can work?" The group of five hundred women unanimously decided that they would stay hungry in order to be able to work to provide for their families.
On March 23, Rea started Fam SOPUDEP an Aksyon (Women of SOPUDEP in Action) and gave twenty women 2500 gourds ($63.00 US) each to buy products from a wholesaler to sell in the market and on the street. Rea also received support from David Connors, a friend of hers from the US. She has put a total of eighty-one women to work. These women come from six different women's organizations around Port-au-Prince of which each has a group leader - MOJUB, COSODEP, Le PHARE, EDIH, ROZO, and SOPUDEP PARENTS. The first thirty women paid back their 2500 gourds in September and the money was passed on to the next group of women.
Rea is realistic about the initial impact of the program. She knows that it is just a way for these women to get their foot in the door. The take home pay for them is still small, but they can buy a bag of rice or a loaf of bread for their families, which is much more than they could do before. The plan is to grow these women's businesses over time and throughout the city with the hopes of stimulating neighborhood economies.
Now that the first group of women have paid back their initial investment of 2500 gourds per person, Rea is looking to give that first group a larger investment of 5000 gourds per person so they can bring in more product and thus generate bigger profits. She is looking for $4000 (US) to make this happen. When that is paid back it will be circulated to the next group and so on...
The agreement is that the women must pay back at least 250 gourds ($6.25) in the first fifteen days and the full 2500 gourds in six months with interest at 10%. When a woman enters the micro-credit program, the group leaders open a bank account for her. As she pays back her loan, the interest is put into her account. After two years of accumulating interest, a general assembly of all micro-credit members will be held, women will be given access to their accounts and they can decide how to expand their business or help their families. Limiting access to their bank accounts presents an opportunity for these women to have a good amount of savings, which I don't believe very many people have in Haiti. It will give them a leg up in the end.
Rea, being the person she is, is always thinking five steps ahead. On the way back to Rea's home from a meeting we attended with one of the women's groups this past summer, she explained that her women selling product in the street is just a way to get started. She said she would like to be able to have a store in the city that would showcase homemade products that these women make, like preserves, pastries, crafts, etc., along with a kitchen in which they can work. She wants her micro-credit group to eventually take the form of a cooperative, whereby these women would own businesses as a collective. They would pool their money to start bigger businesses like a Tap Tap company (Haiti's local public transit) and run these businesses in a democratic fashion and they would, as a collective, practice a cultural tradition called "sôld" or "men," which means "hands put together". Each person in the group puts a small amount of money into a pot, and every week or month a certain number of people in the group receive this money as a bonus to help pay larger bills. Rea already employees this practice with her teachers at SOPUDEP School.
This program is working at ground zero for Haiti's economy in what is referred to as the "informal market". Officially the unemployment rate in Haiti is around 70%, but it does not account for the shoe shiner, the woman selling soda and water or the man pushing a wheelbarrow of sugar cane to the market and everyone else on the side of the road selling goods. This informal economy around the world accounts for a $16 trillion-a-year economy and $11 trillion of that is generated by women. These informal economies extend into every village and neighborhood in Haiti and Rea, as well as many others, understand that the bolstering of these micro-economies is critical to Haiti's people in the long term.
A clip of "Fam SOPUDEP an Aksyon" ending a meeting I had the honour of attending with a song about how women are the pillars of the household.