Nicole Simeone, Journalist, Haiti
The report of a study by Martine Bernier and Dr. Francoise Ponticq (CRESD/UNIQ)*, funded by Save the Children Canada (SSC) and UNICEF, which was published in April 1999, reveals that the phenomenon of children living in the streets in Haiti has increased with more than 300% since 1991.
The document states that this number has increased due to the growing impoverishment of the country which has led to more urban migration.
During those last five years, it was noted that the number of girls – although on a lower level than that of boys – has increased significantly. For instance in 1991, girls represented a low percentage while in 1999, their percentage was between 20 and 33% of the total number. According to the same document, relationships between children and their parents or family members became weaker.
The children who flee the maltreatment which they suffer, most often take refuge to the streets.
Their integration into street life is difficult. Especially the girls must fight to be accepted. In many cases, this involves prostitution with a boy in the group, or endure being beaten or raped.
Ignorant of or just not concerned about methods of family planning, the girls daily run the risk of premature or unwanted pregnancies and contracting Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).
Nadege and Fabienne, respectively 14 and 15 years old, are two of these girls who live in a slum area in South-West Port-au-Prince. They confide that in spite of its uncertainty and unsteadiness, life in the streets offers more freedom than they ever knew before. They are free to wake up at any time, to manage their own cash and to spend their time as they wish.
Being in the streets for at least two years, they eat, sleep and live their sexual life there, with boys who are in the same situation as them.
Nadege and Fabienne beg to earn a living and when at the end of a day they come home empty-handed, their comrades or sexual partners take care of their needs.
Up very early in the morning, they are the first to start “collecting” from passers-by or from the rare visitors to the central cemetery. They beg for a few pennies or for some coffee. The first fruits of their gathering will allow them to have something to eat in the morning.
These two girls have met each other in the streets. They have become very genuine friends. Fabienne, who is nicknamed “Piskilin” because of her remarkable thinness, has great influence over Nadege who obeys all her demands.
Nadege recounts that her mother passed away in 1996. Her mother’s older sister became her guardian, who, in turn, placed her in domestic servitude with people in Delmas 2, who she did not know before.
“The lady treated me badly, she beat me savagely for nothing. So one day, on the motivation of Samantha, a friend who was already living in the streets, I run away,” Nadege explained.
“My first base was a corner near the General Hospital. Samantha took me there. She introduced me into street life. Each time we met, she gave me an account of her adventures. She told me about her freedom and her independence. So one day I escaped when I was to run errands for the lady. She has not seen me since.
“Now my aunt feels regrets. She wants me to come back to her home, but I still have not forgiven her for allowing strangers to mistreat me.
“I think that I will abandon the streets soon. Nevertheless, it is the only place where I have friends. Once I left for another base, located on Bicentenaire, but I returned after some time. Even if I manage to leave street life, I will come back from time to time to visit my friends,” she declared.
“Life in the street is not always easy. There are days when we find nothing and are only scorned by the passers-by.
“Frequently, I visit the Don Bosco home (a charitable institution directed by Father Attilo Stra), but I cannot go any longer because I don’t have shoes and presentable clothes to wear,” Nadege added.
This home, which is quoted by several children in the area, is located on Avenue Bicentenaire. It welcomes many girls of the Portail Leogane area for their training in different domains such as cooking, sewing and cosmetology, as well as manual professions for the boys.
Piskilin used to live with her parents in Cite Soleil, the biggest shanty town of Port-au-Prince (located in the North-West) before she started living in the streets. Following her father’s death, her mother and herself were recruited as domestic servants.
Her mother became ill and Piskilin took to the streets to find money. The beginning was very difficult, she recounts. She used to return home at night time, while after a certain time she started spending some nights outside. Because of constant reprimands, she decided to stay in the streets for good. She used to sleep here and there before the Centre Lafanmi Se Lavi provided her shelter.
“Many of us were dismissed after some unknown people started a fire in the building of the Centre. I found myself in the area of Portail Leogane with other friends who became also based there,” she explained.
She has two brothers and one sister. Her mother lives in Carrefour Pean, another shanty town of Port-au-Prince, with her man. She longs for Piskilin to return home, but Piskilin does not want to share the house with her stepfather. “I visit my mother often and occasionally bring her some money.”
“We are safe near the cemetery and we don’t have to deal often with the police, given that we don’t steal or take drugs, except for consuming inhalants such as glue (also called cement and used to glue shoes). The boys say it makes you feel good.
“We live like brothers and sisters and each of us has to carry out his or her responsibilities: cooking occasionally or doing the laundry for instance. We have our small corner near a wall of the stadium where we arrange our belongings. We have no leisure, except for hanging around during most of the day. Sometimes, I would like to frequent a centre, but they say that I am too old.
“I have a boyfriend, his name is Ti Rousseau. He also lives in the streets and he washes cars to earn a living. I have no children of my own and have never been pregnant.”
These girls state that they do not risk any danger in contracting HIV/AIDS and know little about Sexually Transmitted Diseases. They confirm further that they do not use condoms during sexual intercourse. They do not think that HIV infection concerns them very much.
Nadege has never had a medical checkup. Piskilin had one once when she was in the Centre Lafanmi Se Lavi.
There are about eight girls in this base. They live in similar situations, but some of their cases have been improved by frequent visits to Don Bosco Home on Avenue Bicentenaire, they state. They can spend the day there and come back in the afternoon around 4:00 p.m.
“If I have to quit the street, I will go to my father’s mother. She lives on Oswald Durand Street near the cemetery. At this point I don’t think of it, because I have to come with some money,” Piskilin said.
In spite of the pitiful situation which these girls face, they still cultivate some esteem with regard to their family. They try to prove to them that they can sort it out on their own.
For the moment, they sleep in the carcasses of vehicles and are deprived of the minimum they have the right to, such as health, education, leisure, as required by the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
To be a street kid today in Haiti means lack of basic rights from the economical, social, sanitary and educational point of view, despite the constitutional laws that are supposed to assist them.
In particular in the Capital, where some 6,000 to 8,000 ** street kids live according to figures provided by Martine Bernier and Francoise Ponticq, efforts by several religious institutions undertaken to assist them complement the interventions by public state bodies. However because they are working apart from each other, their efficiency and their fields of action are limited.
Due to the hardships linked to their situation, the large majority of street children do not attend school. They have to struggle daily to make their living by doing occasional lucrative tasks. They nurture the dream to see, one day, things change in their favour.
* Centre for Research on Children in Difficulty / University of Quisqueya.
** There are still not enough complete and updated figures on the population of street children, taking into account that their number varies dependent on the day of survey.