PORT AU PRINCE Marie Yanick Mezile is an impressive addition to the Haitian government, and so is her newly created position as minister of women’s affairs and women’s rights. On Wednesday, Oct. 24th. Talitha Stam and I interviewed Madame Mezile in her office about all things madam sara. Here’s a partial transcript of her remarks:
Q: Can you define madam sara for us?
Marie Yannick Mezile: Maam Sara? Bon. First I will explain what the name means. Madam sara is a bird that travels from place to place, a migratory species that has the instinct to travel. In Haiti we also know madam sara as a peasant, a farmer. She is the pillar of Haitian society, the pillar of the Haitian economy. She is the poto mitan of Haiti. It is a sector that has been neglected.
We, the government of Martelly, see that. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Women’s Rights has a slogan: “Toute femme andan: Every woman is included.” That means female farmers, too. The ministry has different programs for these women. On the level of rural women, we are visiting them, talking with them, going to every commune. This ministry has existed for one year. It started at Oct 19, 2011. And I have been doing this with great satisfaction. I am visiting all 10 departments. I’m talking to women’s organizations, including rural women’s organizations, and we have a forum called Departmenteau where women of that region can go with their problems. That forum is also launched nationally. We have in total 650 members . All 10 departments are participating in the forum, which is directed toward pregnant women. During one of these forums, we sat with the women for three days. They were able to express their feelings, their problems, their needs. We’re preparing a white paper on this matter in order to help them.
The Madam Sara are living in difficult conditions. They are transporting the harvest that their husbands plant. They commercialize it. These women are transporting the harvest from their rural communities, and you know how the roads are. They bring theharvest by donkey and by truck. They put the harvest on top of the trucks, and they have to sit on that, often for two or three days. A lot of women die during such a trip. Once they arrive in the cities, they are victims of robberies, of rape. They don’t have a place to sleep. They eat badly. They drink impure water and have to sit in the trash.
We from the ministry do our best to change this situation for them. We want to address the issues they are having and make them known. For now, we want to build some dormitories. We want to commercialize their products in the communities, because they are responsible for bringing food to the bigger cities. We’re trying to answer their problems by providing dormitories in the bigger cities, and truck stations, and places to get food, because the women are coming from all over. For example, in Port au Prince, you have people coming from the Sud Este department. I identified buildings for situating dormitories. Near Okay we identified a structure where we can put 150 beds, with two madam saras sharing a room. We also identified a depot where madam saras can place their harvest. These are among the ways the ministry tries to improve the situation for these women.
For the women in Kenscoff, Seguin, etc. there is already a dormitory. They’re still looking for one in Port au Prince to help them refresh themselves there.
Q: What is the role of madam sara in Haitian society?
Mezile: Madam saras are women, and you know, this is the ministry of women. We are here to protect the women, to address their rights. Normally the role of the minister is to address the importance (belang) of women In the rural areas, there are few families that do not have a madam sara. They are the ones who are bringing people of intelligence into the world. They are raising doctors, engineers, lawyers, presidents. They are bringing a new social class into the world. The women are the pillars, as I told you, the motors of this economy. Haiti is an agricultural economy. They are bringing the water into the house, sending the children to school. When the husbands are working the land, it is the women who are collecting the harvest. They are the ones who give us life. It’s true, we are neglecting them, and we’re trying to correct that. The ministry of women is correcting that. We are protecting these women so that they can fully participate in our society.
Women represent 52 percent of the Haitian population, and 49 percent live below the poverty line. Thirty-nine percent of those below the poverty line are female heads of household. That means they have a big problem. Imagine. These women are walking like hell, transporting food, vegetables and plantains, for us people living in the cities.
Often these women are called women of the mountains.
Q: How many madam saras are there?
Mezile: I don’t have a fixed number (of madam saras), but in the Oest department it was around a million (women working in the markets). In bigger cities, it can change, but let me tell you this, the Minister of Commercant and chambers of commerce are working together on a survey to get these numbers, including all the people working in the markets. The survey when conducted will give us exactly how many women are working in the markets. But let me explain to you, in the public markets 80 to 90 percent are female workers.
Q: Why so many women in the markets compared to the Dominican Republic?
Mezile: In Haiti, women are not in charge. We lack power. In the informal markets, because the women do not have a lot of education, you understand, that’s why women often go into the informal market sector.
Q: So they are doing it because they have no choice?
Mezile: No, it’s not because they have no choice, but because most of the time they have many children, and they have no husband. In order to create ways for them to send their children to school, they are doing these activities in the informal markets.
Q: Why do they have to operate in the informal markets?
Mezile: It’s because they’re not being identified. They don’t have official identification of the work they’re doing. Therefore the minister of women and women’s rights, works across many of the other ministries. We’re working with all the ministries together. A priority is the identification. For example, I work in the business. If I can’t identify myself, you don’t know who I am. I have an identity card which says who I am, so I can register myself and my business. Together with the ministry of commercant, we are working hard to get these women identified so we can address their issues. For example, if a madam sara arrives with a sack of vegetables, and we cannot identify where she needs to put that sack, we cannot create the space for her to put it. Therefore we need to know how many women are coming from the Kenscoff area and how many products they sell in Port au Prince markets. We need to know how many women there are, how many products there are, and where they are selling, in order to address their issues. If we don’t know who you are, if we don’t know how much you are selling, we cannot help you.
Q: So you want to identify them, but my research says they are actually afraid to go to those places, to banks and Fonkoze.
Mezile: Yes, you’re right, they are afraid to go to the bank, to Fonkoze, to any financial institution, but in order to do this work, they are going to these institutions to provide for themselves. So if I want to go to Fonkoze or any institution, I need to have identification. If I decide to start a business today and go to a financial institution, I need identification. If I want to sell carrots or vegetables but I don’t have money, but I know Fonkoze is in my neighborhood, I can go to Fonkoze and ask them for a loan. But if I go to Fonkoze without identification, I’m sure Fonkoze will have a problem taking me in. …
Q: Is there a growth path for the madam sara?
Mezile: It’s what I said before: If we cannot identify them, we cannot do anything. We cannot even provide education to help them improve. If we don’t develop a program to regulate them, they will always stay in the informal markets. To provide security, education, microfinance so they can improve themselves, so they can strengthen their own capacities. And also the transportation: Transportation is very, very difficult for them. Very often the identification is the key, and the women are the motor of the economy.
But let me tell you something: In the past we used to sell a lot to other countries. But that’s not happening any more. A long time ago Haiti waa able to transport banansas and other products to the Bahamas and other countries. Today that’s not happening. If we had more Haitian products that we can sell then it wouldn’t be that way. Our peasantry is going backwards. Therefore we nee d to go back to the way it used to be.
Q: Tell us your personal story, your background.
Mezile: My name is Marie Yannick Mezile. I was born in Jeremie, I have two children. My first child is at university, she is 18 years old and in her first year of med school. I have another child, adopted, she is very little.
I am a komesan, a distributor. I live in Port au Prince, and I’m a political militant. I am vice president of Phtk, the Martelly party, As you know, I am also the minister of women and women’s rights, working to address women’s issues. In this, I’m working with other women’s organizations and other farm women’s organizations. I’m also working in the informal sector. I’ve been fighting for over 10 years to formalize the informal sector.
My mother comes from the outside – deyo, She is from Jeremie, and I consider myself the child of a peasant. By that I mean a child of a farmer. Peasants raised me, and now I’m the minister. For me, farmers are very important. During my holidays, my mother sent me to my grandmother’s and uncle’s house, deyo, and afterwards I finished my studies in Jeremie and Port au Prince. So I feel very connected with farmers. I even married one. It’s natural that I’m here now to help them.. I am personally very touched by female farmers. Yes, I am a komesan. I have children. I’ve been to school in Haiti. I’m selling articles des maison – household goods — at markets in China, Panama and the US. I have a store, and am always traveling between different countries to find products that I can resell in Haiti. I studied this business and I like it. I’m also a militant in several female organizations, all involving the informal market.
Q: What is the future for madam saras?
Mezile: Madam saras will always be there. It is up to the government and the ministry of women to help and protect them, and to, not necessarily transform them, but to show them we are all women, and they are a part of society, too. We are ready to help them change their conditions, because we are not happy with the way they are living. We want to provide them with a new arguille. They are the ones who provide food for us. Therefore we need to respect them and do as much as we can to reinforce them. I went to different communities to see how women are actually living in these harsh conditions. For example, in Jean Rabel. They don’t have the right seeds, the right tools to work on their gardens, and they don’t have any money. I have seen this with my own eyes. As a minister, I’m going to work with other ministers, to communicate what I’ve seen and try to help them.
Q: Until recently, women had little voice in government, but that is changing. Will you also attempt to bridge the divide between Haiti’s elite and peasants?
Mezile: … It’s the first time in Haitian history that all women are involved. Martelly-Lamothe came with a delegation of ministers that included farmers. There is a minister who’s an agronomist who’s working with farmers. President Martelly wants to make rural women a priority. 42 percent of the government is female. This is extraordinary progress, as the constitution requires at least 32 percent of women involved in government. So in that sense we are progressing a lot, and we hope to continue. … In almost all 10 departments there are women representatives. This government has high priorities for women. There is considerable activity to feminize the country. Many of the activities focus on domestic issues, because the place of many women is in the home. They have many children from different men. In plaçage, men are often not in the house (because they have different wives). In these communities, men leave their wives with nothing. The women are stuck with everything. We are doing our best to create a better situation for them.
On a political level, we have another fight because if you look at the senate, 99 percent of senators are men. Within the ministry we have a program called Klub de Fanm Dyeyo. (deyo means outside Port au Prince). We’re almost done with it. It’s a program to identify women leaders in all 10 departments. Farm women can enter this club. In this way, we hope to work together with all women of Haiti to demand our place at all levels of politics. If we can make that happen, that would be a beautiful thing. ###
Copyright Patricia Borns