Among the 75 women in employed at Haiti Projects in Fond des Blancs is Marthe Bernadel. She is 38, beautiful and the mother of four. Her mason husband seldom finds work in their rural village. One of eight children, Marthe went to school through the 6th grade, and afterwards attended a six-month sewing course offered by the local church. The fee was based on the ability to pay, but each student had to bring her own materials. Marthe and her family somehow pulled the money together and she learned to sew.
Marthe was one of the first embroiderers to join the Haiti Projects Collective when it opened officially in 1996. Already a fine embroiderer, she began to learn crocheting and soon worked her way up to be the instructor in the crochet department.
To supplement her income in order to buy a piece of land and build a house, Marthe began a business on the side making akasan, a corn meal mush sold in the market and at construction sites as a meal for workers. After two years she saw costs rising, and gave up akasan to focus on her embroidery work.
A loan from Caisse Aide, Haiti Projects’ micro-lending program, allowed Marthe to purchase land and begin work on a new house that, after 12 years of work, has three rooms and a gallerie, or porch.
“The great thing about Haiti Projects,” she offers, “is that is has allowed me the women in the village to advance on many fronts, professionally, economically, with housing, better food, schooling for their children and to go to the hospital and buy the medicines they need when they are sick. The more we work the more we earn.” She adds, “And that is what makes it all wonderful.”
When asked what she would do if her textile trade went away, she responds, “I would go back to making akasan, but I would not be able to buy better food and to send the children to school. Life would not be the same.”
Marthe is just one example of how Haiti Projects empowers women through training and employment in rural Haiti since 1996. Haiti Projects currently employs 75 women who handcraft heirloom-quality knit and embroidered goods.
The need in rural Haiti for initiatives like Haiti Projects is great. Before Haiti Projects, only 17 percent of local women could afford their children’s tuition. Now, 100 percent of project participants can and do send their children to school. Not only does the work created by Haiti projects enable women to afford daily basic necessities, it also enables them to invest in their communities. Twenty-two percent of Haiti Projects workers have started their own business since working for Haiti Projects, and 11 percent have bought property.
Haiti Projects is currently working to expand its impact by forging partnerships with major US retailers and designers in an effort to expand production and market penetration in the US, all with the hope of hiring more women and creating a sustainable source of employment in rural Haiti.
Karen Gibbs is co-founder of By Hand Consulting, an agency working in artisan development worldwide. For more information on Haiti Projects, see www.haitiprojects.org.