The Phenomenon of Street Children -a Real Social Challenge
Carril Desrosiers, Free-lance Journalist.
Since a number of years, Haiti, as well as some other countries of the Caribbean, faces an alarming social phenomenon: street children. In Port-au-Prince, Les Cayes, Cap-Haitian and in other urban centres of Haiti, one can see them systematically invading the streets.
Bare footed or with worn shoes, with uncut hair and wearing rags, they tirelessly criss-cross the main metropolitan roads carrying out legal, illegal and marginal activities. People attach all types of attributes to them: deprived children, tramps, thieves, delinquents, etc.
Numerous efforts to check this serious problem, attempted by institutions such as Foyer Lakay (“Home hostel”), Foyer Portes Ouvertes (“Hostel Open Doors”), Maison Arc-en-Ciel (“Rainbow House”) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), have proven insufficient up to now.
According to UNICEF representatives, the number of street children increases at an exponential and very disturbing rate. “Unfortunately, it is becoming a sizable social challenge,” said Claudette Bontemps François, in charge of a project of this organization on Children’s Rights and Children Living in Difficult Situations.
An investigation carried out in 1991 by the Centre for Development and Human Resources (CDRH) showed that the number of street children then was rising to 2,000—the majority of which were in the capital.
The current Minister of Social Affairs, Mrs. Mathilde Flambert, who is in charge of this issue, provided the numbers 6,000 in 1993 and 10,000 in 1996 in an investigation on the impacts of the embargo that was imposed on the country between 1992 and 1994 following the military coup that overthrew the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
These statistical data allow the prediction of an exponential growth of this figure. It should be noted that there are no recent reliable figures of the population of street children.
Among the children and young people that one meets during the day in a-typical situations, there are several categories. The principal ones are constituted by “children in the streets” and “children of the streets.” The first group has maintained ties and relatively regular contact with their families where they return to hand over the fruits of their painful labour. The second group has definitely and deliberately cut the umbilical cord and has opted for the street as workplace and shelter.
The latter category of children is mainly composed of boys between 6 and 18 years old—there are very few girls in this group. They have their peer group and gang which they call their “base.”
According to many observers, particularly representatives of Foyer Lakay, these children tend to come from shanty towns and from homes struck by misery and idleness. Other analysts think that the phenomenon is due to general food insecurity, rural exodus, the explosion of shanty towns, widespread unemployment, uncivilized emigration of boat-people, the deterioration of purchasing power, the high cost of living, etc.
The conspicuous insufficiency prevailing in the social service infrastructure and the gaps displayed by government institutions are also some of the major reasons.
Whatever is said, these unfortunate children are often hard workers, ready to do any job in order not to return empty-handed to their sleeping base. Tired of begging, they choose to wipe windshields and doors of cars that are kept up in traffic, or they wash cars. People with bad intentions abuse their vulnerability to make them work without remuneration. Among the children, there are those who occasionally turn into thieves, stealing wallets or precious objects from naive or distracted people.
UNICEF representatives further observed that these marginal groups live in excessively precarious and unhealthy conditions. Often, they are struck by dreadful illnesses. Skin infections, intestinal illnesses, tuberculosis, typhoid and malaria are among the most common diseases to which they are exposed. With no sanitation or medical care at all, they live in daily familiarity with death.
To better assure their survival, some prostitute themselves in front of hotels and night-clubs. Frequently, they exercise homosexual acts with wealthy people. Thus, they easily contract infectious or sexually-transmitted diseases such as AIDS and gonorrhea.
In spite of their doomed reality, they are confronted by direct physical aggression from people who are angry at them. One remembers the case of “Ti Boutèy” (real name Jameson Dominique), who was literally crushed by an armoured vehicle of the American army when the constitutional order was re-established on 19 September 1994. He was 12 years old. (Information provided by Foyer Lakay, managed by Reverend Father Attilo Stra).
They are also victims of the failure of the judicial system. According to information provided by Collin Granderson, Coordinator of the OAS/UN Civil Mission to Observe Human Rights in Haiti (MICIVIH), on 14 September 1995 in the youth prison at Fort-National, it was found that over a total of 125 cases, there were 75 convictions for minor infractions and offenses, such as tramping, brawls, etc. However, some cases relate to murder and rape.
Packed into overcrowded cells (9 prisoners per 2.50 square meter), they are not referred to appropriate judges.
When struck by daily misery, hunger, mental and physical tiredness, most of these children fall easily for the trappings of drugs. They consume marijuana and inhale glue vapour from plastic bottles.
Rigobert, a 14-year old child, living on the outskirts of the Sylvio Cator stadium, confides his experiences to us and justifies the reasons for his taking drugs: “Me, I am an orphan. I only have the street for shelter. I confront misery every day. I don’t have any chance in life. For me, drugs are the only means to defeat my agonizing and defy social injustice.”
Contrary to what people think, these children have an enormous potential and are very talented. They could be drawn into manual, professional or artistic activities as well as sports, crafts, etc., naturally if given adequate training. Some charitable organizations such as La Fanmi Se Lavi (“The family is life”), Foyer Portes Ouvertes, and Maison Arc-en-Ciel offer striking examples by undertaking projects for the reinsertion and development of these children.
The children orchestra of La Fanmi Se Lavi has the 16-year old Sony Thélusma, alias “Ti Sony”, as a singer. He is one of the many positive examples that can be cited.
However, the problem is not solved as yet. The challenge remains intact and solutions pertaining to this problematic are being awaited. Meanwhile, children occupy the streets of big cities and continue to be victims of a system that sidelines them more and more.