Haitian children, at the mercy of armed gangs and unable to go to school

Steve talking to a UNICEF worker.

Steve (not his real name) dreamed of being a school teacher when his life was turned upside down last year. Due to the upsurge in gang-related violence in his neighborhood, his school was closed, and the 15-year-old found himself wandering the streets, at the mercy of armed groups.

“I joined the band in February 2021. They saw me walking around, they called me and asked me to work for them. There were other kids like me.”

According to a report published by two local youth organizations, the 13% of children surveyed in a troubled neighborhood of the Haitian capitalPort-au-Prince, say they have been in direct or indirect contact with members of armed gangs who tried to recruit them.

© UNICEF/Joseph

Steve talking to a UNICEF worker.

They will kill me if I leave the gang

These gangs promise to pay children a lot of money, and threaten to kill them if they don’t join.

“Every day I get paid 1,500 to 2,500 Haitian gourdes ($15 to $25) to keep an eye on the police. I’ve been told they’ll kill me if I don’t stay with them,” says Steve.

In 2021, clashes broke out between rival armed gangs in some urban areas of the capital, Port-au-Prince. More than 19,000 people, including 15,000 women and children, have been forced to flee their homes due to acts of violence such as murders and kidnappings; hundreds of houses have been burned or damaged.

This year, the gang war has intensified. From April 24, half a million children have lost access to education in Port-au-Prince, where some 1,000 schools are closed, according to government figures.

Gang violence in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, terrifies adults and children alike.

UNDP Haiti/Borja Lopetegui Gonzalez

Gang violence in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, terrifies adults and children alike.

broken childhood

Steve led a quiet life growing up in the suburbs. He played with his brother and his two younger sisters, and was happy during his childhood with his grandmother.

“I used to ride my bike, play video games and watch movies until dark. Sometimes I would go get water for my grandmother and also clean the house,” he recalls.

The violence affects an increasing number of schools and has shattered the dreams of many children. An evaluation carried out by the Ministry of Education between April and May 2022 in 859 schools in Port-au-Prince revealed that the 31% had been attacked, and more than 50 had closed their doors to students. A large number of schools have been occupied by gangs or serve as temporary accommodation for families displaced by violence.

The number of students in classes has dropped from 238,000 at the start of the gang crisis in April to 184,000 today.

Violation of children’s rights

Violence, school closures and apathy lead inexorably to the incorporation of children into armed groups.

“Where I live there are always shootings and often people cannot leave the house. Schools are closed and children are abandoned on the streets. When you live on the streets, you become a street child, and that is what takes us to the bands,” says Steve.

“Giving children weapons to fight and using them as soldiers or spies is a violation of their rights as children and is condemned by national and international law,” recalls Bruno Maes, representative of UNICEF at Haiti.

“It saddens me that children who are willing to learn and teachers prepared to educate cannot do so because they feel insecure. Children should be able to go to school safely, play freely, enjoy being children and have the opportunity to develop their full potential.”

Steve was captured and is awaiting trial on charges related to his gang activity. While he is detained, he receives help from the Brigade for the Protection of Minors, which is supported by UNICEF.

Remarkable data

  • In 2021, more than 95% of children incarcerated in Haiti were in long-term pretrial detention
  • The Brigade for the Protection of Minors works to guarantee that they can benefit from laws that ensure a timely judicial process
  • UNICEF has supported the creation of juvenile courts in the departments of the West, South and North

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Written by Editor TLN

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