Haiti’s lost children

Haiti is a country in the Caribbean that shares an island with the Dominican Republic. While its neighbour has been a tourist hotspot for years, enjoying the fruits of western spending and attraction, Haiti has become so marginalised that it is now another forgotten tragedy consumed with violence, poverty and a terror hard for us to comprehend.

In 2000 it was estimated that in Haiti some 500,000 children under the age of eighteen years (seven per cent of the population) were living and working in and on the streets of its major cities and villages. Since the ousting of the democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, Haiti’s street children have been caught in the crossfire of the political turmoil that followed and the confrontation between the Haitian National Police and the rebel insurgency. Although this civil conflict was between rival adult factions, the Haitian authorities continue to lay the blame on its street children as the principal cause of violence and unrest. For the large part, these children are the victims of this violence and the failure has been on the part of the government to provide them with a security net. With nowhere else to go, street children are placed in the middle of a violent and bloody conflict and blamed for it.

Violence has been endemic throughout Haitian history. Colonisation, slavery, outside interference and dictatorship are the founding factors of modern day Haiti. The Duvalier family dictatorships of Papa and Baby Doc controlled the country from 1957-1986 using the infamous Tonton Macoute repressive paramilitary force. It was only at the end of the twentieth century that a fragile democratic government emerged due to bankruptcy and pressure from the rest of the world. Of the current population of nine million, 4.2 million are under the age of eighteen. Deprivation, poverty and inequality pervade its society with shameful statistics. Life expectancy is sixty one years (2007); fifty five per cent of the population live below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day (2005); only twenty per cent of children attend secondary school; forty two per cent do not have an improved water source; forty three per cent of under fives regularly experience diarrhoea; and twenty four per cent of under fives suffer from stunting. These statistics, along with gross violations of civil rights, underpin the desperate state of the country and economy and the plight of the young people within it.

Denied the right to schooling, healthcare and a safe home, Haiti’s street children live in sewers, cemeteries or anywhere where there is space. Many of these places are potentially violent spaces and in some there is a culture of glue sniffing amongst the children. Laronce is eighteen years old and arrived at the Lefanmi Selavi orphanage in 1991. He speaks about his life on the street and explains: ‘It’s humiliating, because people who see you on the street treat you like an animal, and you can do nothing to defend yourself.’ Laronce’s testimony reveals the stigmatization that many youngsters in his position have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Stigma has also led to stereotyping causing Haitian public and private sectors to normalize child morbidity and death as an expected outcome for children who live and work on the street. Street children have become synonymous with destitution and viewed as an entity which cannot be saved but only tackled with force.

The Anti-Gang Unit is an unregulated, almost mercenary Haitian institution that uses coercive force to get people off the streets. Its main targets are street children who they associate with the gangs or ‘malfacteurs’ and ‘zenglendos’. Michael Brewer, the director of the non-governmental organisation Haiti Street Kids Inc, explains the illegally reformed military ‘justify the murders of these boys by saying that they are cleaning the streets.’ He describes the killing of street children as a type of ‘sport’ supported by the police, members of the death squads, the former military and wealthy elites. Brewer’s observations reveal the emergence of political terror and social cleansing in Haiti as a way of controlling its people.

With failing democratic institutions and fragmented family structures many street children in Haiti have had to become politically active in order to have their voices heard. Some have even become organised social activists. In the 1990’s President Aristide, the first democratically elected president of Haiti, attempted to raise the social consciousness of the urban poor. Lefanmi Selavi was a product of this social conscience; an orphanage based in Port-au-Prince, providing shelter, food and education for street boys in the city. Radyo Timoun is the radio station of Lefanmi Selavi and has given street children a voice in the national debate surrounding children’s issues. The voice of these children has been internationally recognised: in 1997 Lefanmi Selavi was invited to participate in the US Youth Summit. Two young girls travelled to North America where they identified attending school, having a home and health care as the absolute rights of all children.

Rather than try to understand the culture of these children, the Haitian authorities have deemed them antisocial and part of a criminal class. An NGO representative reported that in one meeting, a ministry official argued ‘the only way to deal with street children is to build a big jail and put them inside.’ While a adult criminal is given certain rights, street children are guilty until proven innocent, so they are, in essence, deprived of any form of citizenship rights. The systemic confusion regarding the status of street children is further demonstrated by the presence of these children in the adult court system. If change is to happen the perspectives of children and especially those that are marginalized should be treated as a source of learning and strength. From their stories the adults around them may begin to understand the world these children live in rather than constantly documenting them through adult opinions.

While Britain aims to protect the rights and well being of all its children we have to ask ourselves, what happens to children that are fighting wars, supporting their families and working? What happens to children that are not raised in economically stable and caring environments? Haitian street children are forced to care for themselves in the face of homelessness, hunger and violence. The predicament of street children in Haiti remains poorly recognised and under reported in the developed world. What is required is a new model for understanding the plight of street children in underdeveloped countries. It is incumbent upon the west to begin to acknowledge the desperate situation of street children in the developing world both from a moral and humanitarian standpoint. In the case of the conflict-ridden society of Haiti, a greater international recognition of the suffering and exploitation of children is needed together with help to create the political and economic conditions whereby their humanity and civil rights can be respected.

So what can we do in order to help change these children’s lives? This year has definitely been a year of adjustment for everyone; in times of depression and insecurity themes of social justice, equality and empathy have dominated the student scene. This year saw the highest turn out ever for a student council meeting when we emerged in our hundreds to show solidarity to the plight of Palestinians in the middle east; we filled the union and stayed up till the early hours of the morning for Barack Obama’s victory speech and we continued to celebrate the society we live in through One World Week. Through listening, campaigning and acting students have proved that they can be the change they want to see in the world. It is through education, understanding and believing that we can help the street children of Haiti. Reading this article is the first step in creating awareness about their circumstances and to really believe that their predicament can change is the second. It takes only one voice to make some noise and then the rest will follow.


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