In March 2017, a massive fire broke out in Haiti’s Croix-des-Bossales market near the centre of Port-au-Prince. Fierce flames ravaged a section of the market where hundreds of ti machan [small merchants] sold used clothing, with heavy losses to vendors, mostly women, who rely on commerce for day-to-day survival. Market fires have become a routine occurrence in Haiti , calling attention to the significance of Haiti’s market system, the main vehicle for commerce throughout the country, and to the essential role of women, who are its engine.
Haiti’s market system is the backbone of the economy, as well as “the centre: social, political and economic life rolled together.”  Most trade is in the hands of women. In trying to make a life for themselves, market women confront foreign policymakers, a hostile government and big business interests out to undermine the economic power represented by these resourceful women traders. The purposeful labour of market women offers material and symbolic resistance to powerful forces who aim to control Haiti’s market economy.
Role of women in Haiti’s market system
Haiti’s open-air markets date back centuries to pre-revolutionary days when enslaved African people lived under the vicious French colonial slave system. They farmed small plantation plots to feed their families and sold the surplus in town markets to earn a bit more to survive. After independence, as freed black men and women created new forms of family life and labour based on land cultivation, it was primarily women who took over the market system. These are the foremothers of today’s market women, their skills passed down mother-to-daughter over generations.
Through this unique history, women have come to play a central role in the Haitian economy. But this legacy does not shield women from the struggle for hegemony over Haiti’s most important institution, the market economy. Rather, it puts women at the centre of an unremitting fight by Haiti’s tiny privileged elite to exclude the popular masses from power and to control the nation’s resources and institutions.
Women occupy the lowest rungs of Haiti’s social order, with the fewest liberties and the greatest socio-economic responsibilities. Lack of access to education, poverty, exclusion from political life, responsibility for the basic needs of children and elders, and exposure to gender-based violence are key markers of women’s standing in Haitian society. For many, trade is the only way to make a living for themselves and their families. Over 80 percent of Haitian women engage in commerce.
Market women under attack
There is a great deal of money to be had in Haiti’s markets, and Haiti’s elite merchant class has received free rein from the current contested government to go after this wealth. The conflict has given rise to increasing attacks on women traders and marketplaces for control over the commerce that most Haitians rely on, and to exploit or eliminate small merchants’ trade.
The official label for this system, which represents 85 percent of Haitian trade, is the “informal economy.” Around the world, the informal sector makes up a US$16 trillion-a-year economy of which women are responsible for US$11 trillion. “The economic strength of this sector in Haiti is a surprise to most economists,” wrote President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in his insightful book about globalisation, Eyes of the Heart, published in 2000. “It has a total combined asset and property value estimated at US$4.71 billion, or more than 72 percent of the total assets and property of the 123 largest private enterprises in Haiti.”
Aligned against market women are the wealthy Haitian elite who represent 1 percent of the population, control over 50 percent of the nation’s wealth, and are supported by Haiti’s brutal army. Market women encounter daily aggression from agents of this privileged class for control of commercial space and to reinforce the power of the ruling elite over Haiti’s impoverished majority.
Class and gender oppression intersect in the unrestrained violence carried out against women vendors. A local mayor sends hired criminal elements to drive women off the street where they routinely sell. The mayor’s henchmen brutally beat a pregnant woman and scatter her goods, depriving her of her meagre income. They set fire to the women’s makeshift market structures. Another time, police rough up a woman selling washing supplies in front of her home, confiscating her goods. Haitian police recently arrested scores of market women on charges of littering, carting them off to Haiti’s notorious jails where only a bribe can secure release. Incidents like these are routine under Haiti’s anti-democratic government.
Haiti’s vast market system
Haiti’s market system covers some 300 rural and urban markets reaching into every village and urban neighbourhood, facilitating the flow of commodities and currency around the country. A few examples suggest the scope of this commerce. The Croix-des-Bossales market – once the largest slave market in the Americas – is an outlet for goods from eight of Haiti’s nine geographic departments. Wholesalers, retailers, restaurant owners, supermarkets and consumers purchase staples there. In rural Haiti, 700,000 small farms rely on women traders to package and convey their products from the countryside to urban markets.
Market enterprise ranges from the wholesale trade of imported goods like shoes and second-hand clothing to the poorest vendor selling small quantities of rice and beans to an equally impoverished populace. Small vendors purchase goods from wholesale dealers to sell throughout the city: cosmetics, shoes, charcoal, washing supplies, coffee, chocolate, plantains, matches, cigarettes, corn, toothpaste. A mother living in the countryside sells homemade bread at the weekly market; nearby an aunt sells small cakes and cookies. Transactions occur in huge open-air markets filled with wooden stalls, concrete arcades stuffed with merchandise, neighbourhood streets and sidewalks, by the side of roads and thoroughfares, from women’s homes.
Women often depend on loans from moneylenders to purchase inventory at sky-high 30-60 percent interest rates. The harshest terms are reserved for the poorest women. Some loans have to be paid back the same day. These onerous practices are countered by the Haitian tradition of sol, a practice of mutual support whereby women contribute to a collective fund and take turns using the pooled capital. “Every day, everyone gives 25 gourdes [32 US cents] and one person takes the collection,” explained Mrs C. Sols are communal and democratic, and provide a way for grassroots Haitians to save and borrow money, and survive.
Haitian women in the neoliberal world order
Most Haitians are not employed in salaried jobs. Work promoted by the global economy – tourism, the garment industry, and export agriculture – represents only 15 percent of the economy. The global economy governed by free trade and neoliberal policies relies on the exploitation of women because cheap labour is women’s labour – Haitian women’s wages are 32 percent lower than men’s for work in disposable jobs that are concentrated in low-earning sectors.
While statistics are poor conveyors of embodied experience, a few facts offer a glimpse of what Haitian women grapple with to make a life for themselves and their children. With the greatest income inequality in all of Latin America, 60 percent of Haitians live on less than US$2 a day. Haiti ranks near the bottom of 172 countries in food energy intake. Maternal mortality is five times higher than the regional average. One in five children are malnourished; one in ten are extremely malnourished.
Within these desperate parameters live millions of women preoccupied with the struggle to survive. United States foreign policy plays a key role in imposing these conditions on the Haitian people – both by direct intervention and by backing the Haitian elite who monopolise political and economic power. For example, in the 1980s, with the support of Haiti’s dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) dictated the eradication of Haiti’s entire Creole pig population. During this same era, the deliberate dumping of heavily subsidised US rice devastated the largely unsubsidised Haitian rice farmers. In addition, USAID revamped Haiti’s agricultural system, seizing 30 percent of cultivated land from small farmers – who grew food for domestic consumption – in order to impose export farming on rural Haiti. USAID was fully aware that widespread hunger would result from these draconian measures.  Many thousands fled to the cities. Up until then, Haiti was self-sufficient in growing its own food. Today, a nation of farmers can no longer feed itself.
This early example of globalisation had an especially dire effect on rural Haitian women, who survived by subsistence farming and sales of local produce. Food shortages prompted riots in 1984 in which Haitian women were the main organisers and participants. “At a societal level, the riots constituted a struggle by working people for control of resources, but food and fuel shortages were also a gender issue. Through their massive participation, along with children, in these riots, Haitian women demonstrated as female members of households, whose expected roles were severely compromised by the cost and scarcity of two staple commodities.”  Two years later, Duvalier fled the country.
Survival and solidarity
Colourful images of market women decorate Haitian art, but we should be under no illusions about the difficult, risky work that market women perform. Commerce coupled with responsibility for families is a very hard life. Women endure long days of physical labour in harsh environments, habitual debt, and the risk of lost or damaged inventory from theft, fire and flood. The markets themselves are grim public spaces without lighting, sanitation, or clean water. They are also dangerous spaces for working women.
Poverty puts women at increased risk of sexual violence when out of necessity their work takes them into unsafe spaces.  Many women travel long distances to market, carrying goods and cash; when they arrive, they sleep overnight on the dirt floors of their stalls. Market women have been robbed on their way to farms to buy goods or leaving with their merchandise; threatened with sexual assault and rape at bus and taxi depots where they wait for transportation. Criminal elements roam the marketplaces extorting protection money from women, using any pretext to beat or sexually abuse them. There are no provisions for public safety; women contend with these dangers largely alone.  Haitian women rely on an extraordinary array of grassroots women’s organisations to support each other and to fight for better living conditions. “If we don’t take responsibility for our own destiny, no one else will,” said Mrs. L during a meeting of the market women’s organisation, Organisation of Valiant Women. Hundreds of grassroots women’s organisations emerged during the fight to overthrow Duvalier, in which women’s role figured prominently. “Women bend in the wind, but we do not break. Organisation is how we make things better.”
Resisting government crack down
Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic [DR] is an arena of heightened conflict between the government and tens of thousands of Haitians who cross into the DR every week to buy wholesale goods for re-sale in Haiti. By one estimate Haiti’s street merchants earn US$165 million a year from the sale of basic goods like diapers, brooms, beans, spaghetti and cement that are purchased from the DR.  Over the past decade, in an apparent move to generate more revenue, the Haitian government has instituted a crack down on this trade, imposing a ban on imported eggs – that’s 30 million eggs a month – along with 23 other items from the DR. A passport is now required to cross the border and recently, an increase in the cost of the visa and new entry taxes. The government increased import taxes on goods favoured by street merchants, a move that targets the least powerful vendors who are super-taxed while wealthy importers and hotel owners engaged in the tourist trade receive generous tax breaks. Customs agents have increased border inspections and are authorised to confiscate items for which street merchants cannot pay the exorbitant custom duties or that have not been declared.
In small daily acts of resistance, women traders find ways to avoid or outmanoeuvre customs agents, defying government restrictions that they consider unfair. They brave state officials as well as unofficial agents who demand bribes and may assault or rape them whether or not they comply with the bribe. Recently, a customs agent opened fire on a market woman who argued with him when she was singled out for inspection as wealthier merchants freely passed by. The shot missed the woman, but killed a nearby resident. During the angry response, Haitian witnesses of the incident burned a police station to the ground. Four police were killed.
Markets under fire
According to sources, countless market fires are thought to be deliberate attacks by paid criminal elements in the service of Haiti’s elite merchants “who have found no other way of competing with the resourcefulness of poor small traders than by completely destroying not only their goods but also the market itself.”  A former commander-in-chief of Haiti’s National Police claims that the origin of a public market fire in Haiti is rarely an accident: “It is either political or criminal.”  “Haiti merchants fear for livelihood after market blaze,” read February 2018 headlines after a raging fire burned 60 percent of the historic Iron Market in Port-au-Prince. A woman wept because the small profit she made at the market allowed her to send her eldest son to university in the Dominican Republic. “What am I going to tell him now? To stop his studies and come back here to end up like me without a job?” Another vendor, age 75, who had worked in the market her whole life, said “Without help to restart my business I am going to die on my feet because I never had anything else and, at my age, there is nothing else I can do.”  The following week, flames engulfed the largest clothing market in Port-au-Prince, the third fire at that market in less than a decade. Fifteen hundred vendors, mostly women, lost their entire inventory along with their livelihood.
Grassroots activists report that market fires have been used to intimidate insurgent neighbourhoods, like the November 2018 fire that partially destroyed the historic market near La Saline just days before nation-wide protests against government corruption and injustice. For decades, the La Saline community has been the target of state-sponsored repression because it is a centre of resistance and popular mobilisation.
Tout moun se moun – Everyone is a human being
Despite the resilience, both individual and collective, of market women, the immeasurable human suffering, harm and loss brought to bear by powerful antagonistic forces cannot be underestimated.
There was a time not very long ago – during Haiti’s 2000-2004 democratic government headed by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide – when the essential role of market women was recognised and valued. After a long period of resistance to dictatorship, the poor had achieved power and the popularly elected government began to build a society based on the dignity of every human being. President Aristide recognised that the market economy and market women had to be at the very centre of any economic plan for Haiti.
To that end, Haiti’s marketplaces underwent many changes to address women’s concerns and improve working conditions. Laura Flynn, long-time Haiti activist, reports: “Historically, the markets that serve Haiti’s poor majority were ad-hoc, unplanned, and dirty. While Aristide was President from 2000-2004 fifty-three public market places across the country were constructed or repaired…Clean and dignified stalls were created for vendors, roofs, drainage, and toilets were put in. Public literacy centres, and medical clinics were set up inside the markets for the benefit of both sellers and customers.”  Market women are at the forefront of Haiti’s struggle to survive against the savage impact of global capitalism on this small nation. The poor endure because of their tremendous capacity for survival. Through their daily contest with an oppressive hierarchical system out to crush them, market women carry on Haiti’s irrepressible fight for human dignity and freedom.
*Leslie Mullin regularly writes on Haitian farmers and working class.
 Major market fires include: Gonaives May 2011, October 2012; Croix-des-Bouquets Nov 2011, June 2012, July 2012; Croix-des-Bossales April 2010, Dec 2012, March 2016, March 2017, Feb 2018, Nov 2018; Tabarre Feb 2012; Port-au-Prince May 2013; Petionville Feb 2011, Nov 2016; Port Market June 2018; Iron Market 2008, Feb 2018
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