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Haiti-GENDER ROLES AND FAMILY LIFE





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Haiti Index

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A house-raising
Courtesy Inter-American Foundation

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Haitian peasants
Courtesy Pan-American Development Foundation

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Boats arriving for market day in Restel, southern Haiti

In rural areas, men and women played complementary roles. Men were primarily responsible for farming and, especially, for heavy work, such as tilling. Women, however, often assisted with tasks such as weeding and harvesting. Women were responsible for selling agricultural produce. In general, Haitian women participated in the labor force to a much greater extent than did women in other Latin American countries. Haiti's culture valued women's economic contribution to the farm in that all income generated through agricultural production belonged to both husband and wife. Many women also acquired sufficient capital to become full-time market traders, and they were thus economically independent. The income that they earned from nonfarm business activities was recognized as their own; they were not required to share it with their husbands.

The most common marital relationship among peasants and the urban lower class was known as plasaj. The government did not recognize plasaj as legitimate marriage, but in lowerclass communities, these relationships were considered normal and proper. The husband and wife often made an explicit agreement about their economic relationship at the beginning of a marriage. These agreements usually required the husband to cultivate at least one plot of land for the wife and to provide her with a house. Women performed most household tasks, though men often did heavy chores, such as gathering firewood.

For the most part, lower-class men and women had civil and religious marriages for reasons of prestige rather than to legitimize marital relations. Because weddings were expensive, many couples waited several years before having them. In the 1960s, this pattern began to change among Protestant families who belonged to churches that strongly encouraged legal marriage and provided affordable weddings (see Protestantism , this ch.). It was not unusual for peasants to have more than one marital relationship. Some entered into polygamous marriages, which only a few men could afford.

Legal marriages were neither more stable nor more productive than plasaj relationships. Also, legal marriages were not necessarily monogamous. In fact, legally married men were often more economically stable than men in plasaj relationships, so it was easier for them to separate from their wives or to enter into extramarital relationships.

Men and women both valued children and both contributed to child care, but women generally bore most of the burden. Parents were proud of their children, regardless of whether they were born in a marital relationship or as "outside children." Parents took pains to ensure that all of their children received equal inheritances.

Family structure in rural Haiti has changed since the nineteenth century. Until the early part of the twentieth century, the lakou, an extended family, usually defined along male lines, was the principal family form. The term lakou referred not only to the family members, but to the cluster of houses in which they lived. Members of a lakou worked cooperatively, and they provided each other with financial and other kinds of support. Land ownership was not cooperative, however, and successive generations of heirs inherited individual plots. Under the pressure of population growth and the increasing fragmentation of landholdings, the lakou system disintegrated. By the mid-twentieth century, the nuclear family had become the norm among peasants. The lakou survived as a typical place of residence, but the cooperative labor and the social security provided by these extended families disappeared. Haitian peasants still relied on their kin for support, but the extended family sometimes became an arena for land disputes as much as a mechanism for cooperation.

Family life among the traditional elite was substantially different from that of the lower class. Civil and religious marriages were the norm, and the "best" families could trace legally married ancestors to the nineteenth century. Because of the importance of intermarriage, mulatto elite families were often interrelated. Marital relationships have changed somewhat since the mid-twentieth century. Divorce, once rare, has become acceptable. Elite wives, once exclusively homemakers surrounded by servants, entered the labor force in increasing numbers in the 1970s and the 1980s. The legal rights of married women, including rights to property, were expanded through legislation in the 1980s. In addition, the elite had a broader choice of partners as economic change and immigration changed the composition of that group.

Data as of December 1989











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