Elevate Difference

Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy

The opening shots in Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy, a fifty-minute documentary narrated by Edwidge Danticat, reveal an island paradise: turquoise waters, green hills, beautiful, and colorful flowers. But these scenes don’t last long.

Almost immediately, we’re introduced to numerous working-class and poor women, nicknamed poto mitan, Creole for the pillar around which everything revolves. Their stories range from the heartbreaking to the enraging as one after another they describe the poverty that keeps them and their offspring from fulfilling their dreams.

Viewers will see incredible penury—large families crammed into tiny tin-roofed shacks—as well as miserable filth caused by infrequent garbage pick-ups. Graffiti in English and Creole spells out the community’s rage: People are Dying; Fuck You, UN, Go Home. The latter refers to the United Nations’ “Stabilizing Mission,” on the island since 2004 ostensibly to protect human rights and, according to a UN website, “restore a secure and stable environment” to the nation. That this has been an abysmal failure goes without saying.

While the film could have more clearly explained the UN’s purported function, and better describe the role of the World Bank and the neoliberal economic policies that have stifled Haitian development, the film’s focus on the women most impacted by the current social crisis is effective.

What’s more, the film assesses the pervasive sexism that continues to undervalue female children and adult women. As local lore has it, why send a girl to school when her life will involve nothing more than cooking and cleaning? What use is a “kitchen scholar?”

Marie-Jeanne, one of the women interviewed in the film, explains that while sexism is a factor for some people, her decision to keep her child out of school is purely financial. On a salary of $1.75 a day, she says that she cannot afford the $15 monthly school enrollment fee. The decision is obvious: When the choice is between food and education, the latter loses.

Another woman, unemployed since her factory closed in 2006, goes even further. “Misery and poverty facilitate violence. Anyone can get involved in crime. Anyone can become a thief.”

Dozens of people add their voices to the mix. Some describe whole families being forced to migrate to the capital city of Port-au-Prince because of ever-worsening conditions in the countryside; others reveal that they involuntarily forgo medical care for treatable diseases; and still others tell horrifying accounts of children dying of dehydration and hunger.

But there are small glimmers of hope. At the film’s conclusion, the viewers meet members of the Women’s Vigilance Committee (WVC), an organization that teaches female workers their rights and campaigns against violence. The WVC has also organized International Women’s Day celebrations, as well as marches and protests. As one WVC leader explains, “Women, if we don’t speak up, no one will speak up for us.”

Haiti is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. But as Camille, another interview subject, explains, “Haitians are not starving because of lack of food.” Haitians are starving because of inept political leadership, ignorance, and preventable poverty.

Knowing this is the first step. From there, action is inevitable.

Written by: Eleanor J. Bader, November 13th 2009