Encouraging women in leadership in Haiti

“They say women can’t plant trees, but we say that they can”

The temperature inside the small church nestled in the lush mountains of Haiti’s Artibonite valley is sweltering, but despite the heat, thirty or so children and youth are gathered inside, clapping to the beat as Magdalene Ovilmar leads them in a warm-up activity. The young people range in age from five to eighteen, and at least half of them are girls.

Let us plant the earth

Magdalene Ovilmar leads the Degrave environmental club in a song titled "An nou plante latè," or "Let us plant the earth."

They’re here as part of the MoTiLaM clubs (the acronym for Children’s Movement for a Better Life in Creole), environmental clubs led by MCC that dot the region around the town of Desarmes. In the past, leadership in the clubs, as elsewhere, has been largely male-dominated, but thanks to a concentrated effort from MCC staff, more and more young women like Ovilmar are taking up the role of leaders and educators in their communities.

Magdalene Ovilmar has been a club monitor in the Degrave MoTiLaM club for three years. Young women in positions of leadership like Ovilmar are inspiring other young women to follow in their footsteps. 

Valuing agriculture as a way of life

Desarmes is a town of about forty thousand in Haiti’s Artibonite valley, a region where most people’s livelihoods depend on agriculture. But working in the fields has lost much of its appeal for the youngest generation. Agricultural workers are perceived as unintelligent and unskilled; it’s even become something of an insult to tell a classmate to go work in the fields. In addition, cheap imported agricultural products and unpredictable weather patterns caused by climate change have made it harder and harder to make a sustainable living from the land.

The environmental clubs aim to change this by educating children and youth in sustainable agricultural practices, both in theory and in practice. The first step is hiring club monitors, young leaders like Magdalene Ovilmar who teach children about nutrition, hygiene, and environmental protection and supervise them as they put these lessons in practice in demonstration gardens.

Teaching girls about agriculture and the environment

Ovilmar is a natural leader, energetic and passionate about educating young people. She was hired as a club monitor three years ago after being identified as a potential leader by the MCC environmental education team based in the Desarmes MCC office. Although she hadn’t been a club member herself, she knew about the clubs and MCC’s work in the area through her church. After she was hired, she received training from MCC on sustainable agricultural practices, nutrition and hygiene.

“We teach children about the vitamins in different foods, how to wash fruit properly, how to keep their house clean,” she says. “We want them to know they don’t need to leave Haiti to have a good life—there’s enough to live on here.”

MoTiLaM club members grow vegetables like okra in a demonstration garden where they can practice agricultural techniques like sustainable harvesting and soil conservation, which they can then apply in their home gardens. The demonstration garden was purposely built close to the road so passersby can also see the techniques being used and copy them at home. 

In a nearby club demonstration garden, club members learn how to grow several different types of vegetables under the supervision of club monitors. They and their parents can take home some of the produce, but even more importantly, children bring home lessons in sustainable agriculture that can be applied to their gardens at home. Many families derive the bulk of their income from the produce they grow at home and sell in local markets, so the lessons children learn in the demonstration garden can have a significant impact on their family’s well-being.

Both boys and girls participate in all club activities. Female club monitors like Ovilmar lead games and singing, but they also play sports, lead committees, and participate in MCC reforestation activities like the annual tree-planting [extravaganza] on nearby mountain, Mòn Sejou for World Environment Day.

“It’s important to have female club monitors because people are always saying there are things women can’t do,” says Ovilmar. “We’re fighting against that. They say women can’t plant trees, but in the MCC clubs, we say that they can.”

Adline Sainvilus, Fritzner Estilus, and Nahomie Horacius form the MCC environmental education team, based out of the MCC office in Desarmes. The environmental education team oversees the MoTiLaM clubs that teach children about sustainable agriculture, nutrition, and hygiene.

Encouraging women in leadership

In October 2017, MCC sent Fritzner Estilus and Adline Sainvilus of the MCC environmental education team (which oversees the MoTiLaM clubs) for training on women’s and girl’s rights, knowledge that they’ve brought back to their work with the clubs.

“There’s an inequality that gives boys more power than girls,” says Estilus. “Often when we do trainings, we find boys participate more than girls, and girls, especially those who are rèstavèks (children working as domestic servants) don’t have as much opportunity to attend trainings because they’re working in the home.”

To combat this inequality, MCC staff make a concentrated effort across all projects to encourage women to take up positions of leadership.   

“We’re always trying to raise awareness of women in leadership,” says Nahomie Horacius, also of the environmental education team. “When young women see a woman standing at the front of the room, they want to follow in her footsteps.”

Eventually, the environmental education team wants to start a girls-only club, both to give women more opportunities for leadership and to create a space for them to talk comfortably about the issues that affect their lives. In the meantime, signs of change are evident in the work of young club monitors like Ovilmar who are teaching a new generation of young women that they too have a role to play in the agricultural work that sustains both their bodies and the regional economy.

“Before, they thought women couldn’t participate in agriculture,” says Sainvilus, “but now we know they can. We have female agronomists, female technicians. We’re starting to have equality.”