Micheline Brice, 28, sits on a burlap rice sack among the vendors in the bustling Jérémie market in southwestern Haiti. There is no shade, and she perspires heavily under her long-sleeved blouse.
“Two years ago, my mother died,” says the vegetable and fruit vendor. “I was living with my grandmother, who put me through school until sixth grade.”
At age 12, she says her grandmother could no longer afford her schooling.
“With nothing to do, I had three children one right after the other,” says Brice, who is unmarried with two sons and a daughter.
But life only became harder with more mouths to feed. So Brice started her own business.
“When I felt that hunger was about to kill me, I started making charcoal and selling it,” she says.
She then expanded her business with trips to the capital, Port-au-Prince.
“When I saw this was working, I took some of the money I made to buy a ticket to take the boat to Port-au-Prince in order to buy more things that I could sell in Jérémie, like cabbage, carrots, onions and green peppers,” she says.
Brice soon set up a stand in the Jérémie market in Haiti’s Grand’Anse department, where she works every day to make enough money to feed her children. She can also pay for their education so they don’t have to drop out as she did.
Young women are turning to street vending to secure an income to educate themselves and their children. They face challenges as vendors and small-business owners, such as theft, harassment and lack of business training. The Grand’Anse Chamber of Commerce launched a study last month as part of a promise to increase support for street vendors.
Half of children are not enrolled in primary school in Haiti, and one-third of girls older than 6 never go to school, according to Haiti Partners, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to helping Haitians change the country through education. Approximately 30 percent of children in primary school will not make it to the third grade.
It costs about $130 annually to educate a child in Haiti, including uniforms, books, materials and transportation, according to Haiti Partners. But the average family here has 4.4 children, and the annual income per person was just $650 in 2010, according to UNICEF.
So enterprising young women are starting their own businesses to continue their educations or to give their children the education that they did not have.
Marie Roselor Aubourg, director of the Grand’Anse Chamber of Commerce, says that this is the nature of Haitian women.
“The women of the Grand’Anse have always made an effort to make a life for themselves,” she says in a clear, authoritative voice. “That dates back a long time, because the Haitian economy rests mostly on the shoulders of the Haitian women.”
Women are more willing than men to do any kind of work, she says. It doesn’t matter how menial if it means being able to feed their children, to send them to school or to pursue an education of their own.
“According to some research, there are more males in the Grand’Anse and the department of the South,” she says. “But because of the small street businesses, which are mostly run by women, it appears as if there are more women.”
Magdala Thellusmas, 24, started to work as a street vendor in order to pay for her schooling.
Thellusmas is the sixth of seven children. She was previously living with one of her older sisters, who worked as a street vendor to support her own five children. When her sister could no longer afford her school fees, Thellusmas had another idea.