Gender roles and family relationships in Haiti have their roots in the diverse cultural backgrounds of the populace. Broadly speaking, the two major cultural influences are African and French. At one extreme is the African heritage. Among the Afro-Haitians who occupy the three lowest classes in the Haitian society, Middle Class, Urban Low Class and Rural Peasantry, the African cultural heritage is still very strong. This is particularly evident in the areas of marital relationships, defined roles of each gender before and after marriage, types of marriages and the extended family system. At the other extreme you have the Franco-Haitians or mulattoes, who have embraced French heritage wholesale, and who occupy the elite upper class of Haitian society.
Rural Haiti is where the vast majority of Haitians live and the people are mostly Afro-Haitians. In these parts of Haiti, the twin influences of their African heritage and the people’s experience of slavery have combined to define their family and marital relationships and the roles of the two genders (male and female) in these relationships. The major economic activities of rural Haiti are centered on agriculture. The people, both male and female, are essentially farmers.
For couples who are married or have a marital arrangement, their major economic and financial activities, which is centered around food crop farming, is a cooperative effort between a man and his wife. Haiti’s rural culture values women’s economic contribution to the farm; in that all income generated through agricultural production belongs to both husband and wife. The farm work is arranged in such a way that the activities of the wife complement those of the husband. While the man does all the hard work in preparing the land for cultivation, bush clearing, tilling and hoeing; the wife does the complementary work of weeding, pruning and harvesting.
As a follow-up to the harvest, the wife processes the produce for sale in the market.
Crops like cassava tubers are processed into cassava flour and cassava starch, by the woman, before taking them to the market for sale. The woman is solely responsible for marketing their farm harvest. The proceeds from the sales are used for taking care of the needs of the whole family. For couples who have a ‘plasaj’ or concubinage marital arrangement, economic security arrangements are made for the woman. The husband, apart from providing a house for the woman, she is likely to be a second wife, is also required to cultivate a plot of land for the wife’s own farm.
Rural women, who are full-time market traders, often attain economic independence. These women are not required by tradition to share their income with their husbands. However, some help to augment family income by making voluntary contributions from the proceeds of their trading and other non-farming activities. Among the peasants of rural Haiti, there are several types of marital arrangements between men and women. You have the monogamous marriage between a man and a woman. Marriage could be contracted under the traditional system. In this arrangement, the man pays a bride price to the family of the woman.
Polygamy is still practiced in rural Haiti. The first wife is the only one usually recognized by government as the legitimate wife, while other ‘plasaj’ wives are regarded as the man’s concubines. Because of the great love for children by Haitian parents, children are accepted, whether they are born in or out of wedlock. The extended family system or ‘Lakou’ is still very much alive and well in rural Haiti. Members of a ‘Lakou’ work cooperatively on each other’s farms, and they provide each other with financial support in times of need. It is worthy to note that most of the traditional practices of rural Haiti are a faithful transfer of the original traditions of their African ancestors. Some of these traditional practices like polygamous marriages, cooperative farm work and couples living in extended family compounds are still very much in existence today in rural African societies.
Migration of Afro-Haitians from rural communities to urban centers has resulted in modification of some of the traditional practices of their forebears and the outright elimination of others. Among the urban low class communities in Haiti today, the most common marital arrangement still remains the ‘plasaj’, or concubinage. Because of the high cost of formal marriage ceremonies, couples coexist as man and wife until they are financially able to legitimize their marriages either in a Christian religious ceremony or in a court of competent jurisdiction. Husbands and wives in urban low class families share the cost of maintaining the home. Husbands work in paid employment while wives carry on petty trading or operation of small eateries and beer parlors. The urban low class husbands also help with the heavy household chores, like gathering firewood for cooking fuel, while the wives do the actual cooking, along with her other house keeping duties and care of the children.
Among the middle class Haitians who live mostly in urban areas, formal monogamous marital relationships are the norm. Middle class marriages usually take the form of church wedding ceremonies or legal exchange of vows in a court of competent jurisdiction. Husbands normally help their wives with childcare and other house-hold chores, particularly when both husband and wife are engaged in paid employment. Since their arrival in Haiti in the later half of the twentieth century, Protestant churches have encouraged legal unions between couples in both urban low class and middle class, by providing affordable church weddings for members of these churches.
The elite upper class Haitians, who are mostly mulattoes, have for hundreds of years mimicked the French ways of doing things. They live like the French, speak the French language in the home and in the workplace; and of course, have adopted the French marital customs and practices. Civil and religious marriages were the norm, and the “best” families could trace legally married ancestors to the nineteenth century and beyond. Courtships between eligible spinsters and bachelors used to be arranged by “best” families. Hence, it was not uncommon for mulatto elite families to be interrelated, with cousins marrying each other. The husband used to go out to work in paid employment or to run the family business, leaving the wife to take care of the home front, surrounded by servants. With immigration from Europe, and the changing economic conditions of Haiti, things are also changing in the elite upper class. It is now quite common for elite wives to take on paid employment, while husbands share in management of the home.