The Working-Woman Problem We Don't Talk About

Refinery29 joined the Clinton Foundation for a tour of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to get a firsthand look at the experiences of the women and girls who live there. Here is our report.

It’s late afternoon in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, and things are winding down at Papillon Enterprise. In the dusty backyard, women and men sit on wooden stools and broken folding chairs, shaping and glazing clay beads, chatting idly in Haitian Creole. They’re making jewelry that will be sold in the U.S., and they’re paid just enough to cover food and shelter for their families and schooling for their children. Their monthly salaries aren’t much more than some New Yorkers might spend on a fancy evening out — but in a nation where roughly 60% of the population makes less than $2.44 a day, it’s a significant sum.

In the next building over, women take care of the workers’ babies. The free child care is an essential part of the success of Papillon. U.S.-born Shelley Clay, who founded the small business in 2008, isn’t just focused on the present — employing the poorest Haitians, many of whom had never held a steady job before they started rolling beads. She also has her eye on the future — lifting up the next generation, teaching them to read and write, and giving them opportunities their parents could never imagine.
Photo: Courtesy of the Clinton Foundation.
Why is it so difficult to earn a living wage in Haiti? The citizens of this small Caribbean nation struggled with high rates of poverty, illiteracy, spousal abuse, and mother and infant mortality long before a 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked the country on January 12, 2010. The former French colony has been independent for more than 200 years, but after decades of suffering under a brutal dictatorship, the nascent democracy is still striving to find its footing. Haitians lack access to even the most basic necessities like clean water, indoor plumbing, and electricity.

And then the quake killed somewhere between 230,000 and 300,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless. It was the biggest natural disaster in the Western Hemisphere in decades, and it thrust Haiti into the international spotlight. Governments and private businesses alike stepped in and promised billions of dollars in assistance. Journalists, aid workers, Marines, and doctors landed in Port-au-Prince to begin the hard work of rebuilding a city that was broken even before this unspeakable damage. The promise: “Build back better.”

But with millions of dollars in aid unaccounted for, homeless rates still sky-high, and a cholera epidemic ravaging the country, it’s easy to feel pessimistic about progress and miss the success stories. Look a little closer, though, and you can find pockets of hope — largely in the form of small businesses led by strong women who are determined to improve life in Haiti, one craft at a time.
Chelsea Clinton, who stepped into the role of vice chair of the Clinton Foundation in 2011, is among many who are advocating for change in Haiti and are working to bring awareness to critical issues facing the women and girls who live there. Though the Clintons have a long history with Haiti (Bill and Hillary went there on their honeymoon in 1975), Chelsea talks of feeling a "real moral responsibility" to offer support following the earthquake. "How can we not try to do something even more than what the foundation was already doing in Haiti?" she asks.

In late July 2015, Chelsea Clinton made her first solo trip to Haiti with a delegation of 13 to tour a number of businesses and facilities that have received support from the foundation. The two-day trip included the fourth international No Ceilings Conversation, which featured Chelsea and two prominent Haitian business leaders, Carine Roenen, of the Fonkoze Foundation, and Magalie Dresse, of Caribbean Craft. The audience was filled with entrepreneurs, students, and nonprofit workers who are all working toward the same goal: empowering the women of Haiti through entrepreneurship.

“I think there is such a case for optimism about Haiti,” Chelsea says. “And also really about what women can do when we’re truly unfettered.” These female entrepreneurs strive for success not because it will bring them wealth or fame, but because with steady employment, they’re able to economically support not just their families but also other women as well.

I think there is such a case for optimism about Haiti.

Chelsea Clinton, Vice Chair Of The Clinton Foundation
This video snapshot of our two-day tour shows that optimism does abound in Haiti. Hit play for a deeper look.

When Shelley Clay visited Haiti in the early aughts, she had plans to adopt a child. But after spending some time at an orphanage, she was upset to learn that many of the children hadn't lost parents but instead were there because their mothers couldn’t afford to care for them.

“I thought to myself, ‘Man, I’m about to go into an adoption process that’s going to be $20,000, and I’m going to end up raising a poor mother’s child who couldn’t find $200 a month to feed their kid,’” Shelley says. “Obviously, it’s wonderful to adopt children, but [it’s also important] to give every woman an opportunity to be able to raise the kid that she was blessed with.”

Shelley recognized the adoption fee could support many families if it was instead used as seed money to start a small business. So she returned stateside and developed the idea for the Apparent Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit that aims to economically support families in Haiti, so that women are able to keep their children. In 2008, Shelley moved her own family to Port-au-Prince, wanting to live there full-time and find a way to help mothers on the ground. Things started out small — she had no business experience, no retail experience, no nonprofit experience. She describes herself as a hobbyist at best and jokes that everything else she learned to do is thanks to YouTube and Google.
Photo: Courtesy of the Clinton Foundation.
What started out as four women making beads out of cardboard cereal boxes has grown into the thriving Papillon Enterprise, a wholesale business that sells jewelry and ceramics to U.S. retailers. This fall, it’s also launching an online store so consumers can buy direct. Shelley offers the more than 300 employees a daily meal, interest-free loans to buy land, and vocational training ranging from literacy programs to Excel and QuickBook classes.

She admits to feeling discouraged at times; there are bad days when it feels like everyone is ungrateful. Nearly every morning, there is a line of people standing outside Papillon looking for work. Frequently, mothers think she’s running an orphanage and try to leave their babies behind. But Shelley wants to get her employees to look at the big picture. People who come from poverty have a hard time seeing the future, she explains, so she gives daily staff pep talks, where she encourages them to imagine their children as managers of Papillon one day.

[A job lets a] woman be empowered, to say, ‘No, you can’t do this to me anymore or I will leave.’

Shelley Clay, Founder Of Papillon Enterprise
Shelley can tell you countless hopeful stories, though. She talks about one employee who has been working for Papillon for several years. The woman came to Shelley to escape an abusive relationship and has had a lot of success working with her — the woman was able to buy her own land and send her children to school. She also married the man who once abused her, which might sound surprising, but it ultimately proves just how powerful employment can be for women.

“I asked her one time, ‘Does he still beat you?’ Shelley says. “She said, ‘No, he hasn’t beaten me since I started working.’ I asked why, and she said, ‘Before, he knew I couldn’t leave. Now he knows that I can leave him, and so he treats me better.’”

Domestic violence is rampant in Haiti, Shelley explains, and it’s not really frowned upon in mainstream culture. “[A job lets a] woman be empowered, to say, ‘No, you can’t do this to me anymore or I will leave,’” she says. “That’s a really exciting thing to see, and it’s exciting to see them flourishing together and being in a relationship that’s more healthy.”
Shelley’s aim when starting Papillon was to pay her employees $300 per month, which is roughly enough to cover food and shelter and send two children to school. It’s not much, but it’s significant in a country where people live on as little as $200 a year. There are few public schools, and it costs upward of $130 a year to educate a child. As a result, one-third of girls above the age of six don’t go to school. For the employees of Papillon, these jobs are more than just a paycheck — they are about education and hope and the belief that things will get better for the next generation.


Female entrepreneurs like Shelley are crucial to the economic development of Haiti. But women who own businesses are not important only in the world’s poorest nations. Research has found that mobilizing the female workforce would have a drastic impact on the world's economy. Citing data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Hillary Clinton wrote in a 2014 op-ed in The Economist that closing the gap in workforce participation between men and women would increase the global GDP by nearly 12% by 2030.

Unfortunately, only 55% of women worldwide are part of the labor force, compared to 82% of men, according to highlights from the 2015 No Ceilings Initiative Full Participation report that was released this spring by the Clinton Foundation in conjunction with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In countries like Haiti, where poverty is widespread, giving women the tools and the opportunities for advancement doesn’t just help individuals but also whole communities. “Women tend to invest more of their earnings than men do in their family’s well-being — as much as 10 times more,” Melinda Gates wrote in an article for Science in September 2014. She goes on to note that “women’s control over resources is associated with better outcomes in family planning; maternal, newborn, and child health; nutrition; and agricultural development.”
“There’s a growing recognition among everyone from the World Bank to the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to aid organizations like CARE that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism,” Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn wrote in the 2009 article “The Women’s Crusade” in The New York Times Magazine. “That’s why foreign aid is increasingly directed to women. The world is awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.”

That message is reflected in the work the Clinton Foundation is doing in Haiti. Trailing Chelsea through a full day of touring businesses and health facilities in Port-au-Prince, the theme emerges again and again: In order for this country to prosper, women must prosper.


Even with the Clinton Foundation raising more than $30 million for Haiti since 2010, the progress can feel negligible. But the problem with trying to change the world is that change is often slow. Mistakes are made. Money is wasted. And locals don’t always want the help that’s offered.

The Haitian people come from a history of fierce independence: Their ancestors led the first successful widespread slave rebellion in the Americas and, in 1804, became the first postcolonial free black nation in the world. In the 200 years since independence, there have been countless regime changes, including a nearly 30-year dictatorship by U.S.-backed François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son. It’s been just 25 years since Haiti became a democracy, and it’s a fragile one. The political instability only complicates the distribution and effectiveness of the aid, as well as the ability of its people to set up and grow businesses.

You can’t merely blame the Haitian bureaucracy, though. NGOs have made bad decisions, and so has the U.S. government. But the Clinton Foundation isn’t in Haiti to dwell on the mistakes — the focus of Chelsea’s trip is to solve problems as well as celebrate the successes.
Sabine Toussaint, senior program manager for the Clinton Foundation in Haiti, is one of the many foundation employees involved in organizing the tour. She is New York-born but has roots in Haiti, and she became involved with the organization in the days after the 2010 earthquake. Sabine works in Haiti at least one week a month, and she’s seen big changes in the country over the past five years, though she doesn’t downplay how much work is left to do.

“I’m not discounting the issues of the gender-based violence, not discounting the issues of poverty, the fact that young ladies are less likely to go to secondary school, not discounting all of those,” Sabine says, speaking to the many challenges facing women and girls here. The women of Haiti are called poto mitans — they are the pillars of society, she explains, the ones tasked with providing for their families, and they need access to capital in order to thrive. “How do you create an environment where these women can prosper and grow, and their children can be afforded a better life?”

Magalie Dresse, along with her husband, Joel, are trying to create that kind of environment at their business, Caribbean Craft. The Dresses employ more than 400 artisans who make traditional papier-mâché crafts that are sold to U.S. stores like Dwell Studio and Donna Karan’s company Urban Zen. On this hot and sunny Tuesday, workers are painting panda ornaments that will be shipped to West Elm in time for the holidays. The partnership between West Elm and Caribbean Craft was brokered in part by the Clinton Foundation.
Photo: Courtesy of the Clinton Foundation.
“Magalie was given this opportunity to take over a bankrupt company, and she completely reimagined it,” Chelsea explains, sitting in one of Caribbean Craft many workrooms; the shelves behind her are stuffed with papier-mâché animals. “Magalie helped Caribbean Craft move into the American market, and as opportunities really grew for the business, she really focused on expanding opportunities for women here in Haiti.”

How do you create an environment where these women can prosper and grow, and their children can be afforded a better life?

Sabine Toussaint, Senior Program Manager, Clinton Foundation in Haiti
Magalie made it a priority from the start to hire more women, and not just provide them with a paycheck. Caribbean Craft, with funding from West Elm, offers a six-month literacy training program. Employees have access to health insurance and no-interest loans, as well as a free daily meal and transportation subsidies. Before 2010, the Dresses employed more than 500 people, but the earthquake completely destroyed their factory. After the disaster, when many of her employees were left homeless, Magalie had people working out of her home.

“I find that so inspiring that she so fundamentally believed in her own potential and the potential of this company,” says Chelsea. “But also, Magalie expanded the circle of opportunity. It wasn’t only about having a job, but it was also about ensuring that women learn to read and write in Creole and in French…. I hope that more employers here in Haiti and — candidly — anywhere feel that same responsibility, recognizing that when they have educated, healthy employees, that’s good for their bottom line as well as good for their employees’ livelihoods and lives.”
Photo: Courtesy of the Clinton Foundation.

Driving around in Port-au-Prince is terrifying. There are few stop signs or traffic lights, and no parallel yellow lines to indicate the lanes. The roads are jam-packed with cars and elaborately decorated buses (known locally as "tap-taps") that fly up and down hills and around corners and into intersections with a kind of fearlessness that befits the craziest New York cabbies. The traffic slows to a halt after someone is killed in an accident. People swarm around the dead body, blood everywhere — it’s eerily similar to the crowd who gathered around a snake charmer earlier that day. There was something simultaneously scary and strangely thrilling about both scenes.

The poverty here is overwhelming. Climbing the hill that leads to Papillon Enterprise, there’s a bird’s-eye view of shacks and tent cities and crumbling concrete structures where the majority of the Haitian population lives without running water or electricity. It’s hard to feel optimistic as you take in the scene.
But while burning garbage may fill the streets of the capital city, around each stand where locals sell breadfruit or leather sandals or ancient Zenith TVs, the ground is swept clean. Buildings are painted bright colors, and men and women stand tall as they balance large baskets on their heads and walk proudly down the dirt roads.

There is pride here. And there is hope here.

And yet, the work is nowhere near done. These two small businesses employ less than 1,000 people combined in a country where two-thirds of the workforce do not have formal jobs. How much difference can these women really make?

A hugely significant change, if you ask someone like Sabine.

“There’s strength and there’s vulnerability and there’s joy; there’s sadness in these women, but they continue on, and they do their best, and there’s always a focus on just making it better for the next generation, even if it’s tough for them,” Sabine says. “Every day, whatever the obstacles, they get up and they do it…. I don’t know if I could do it. But they just do it with such grace. Seeing them…you know, I don’t have an excuse. I have zero excuse.”

Seeing them…you know, I don’t have an excuse. I have zero excuse.

Sabine Toussaint
It’s easy to root for these women who toil so hard to take care of their families. That desire is universal: We all want more for our children, and we will make sacrifices to see them succeed.

As the No Ceilings conversation wrapped up on Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, Pamela White, took to the microphone for a rousing pep talk that drove this idea home. “One of my favorite phrases is ‘Haiti is too rich to be poor,’” she says with gusto. “So I don’t want to hear about poor Haiti anymore. I want to hear about rich Haiti.”
For more information on the Clinton Foundation's work in Haiti, click here.

For information on donating to the Apparent Project, click here.

Video produced and filmed by Jacki Huntington; edited by Andrew Reuland; stock footage from Reuters.
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