Champ-de-Mars Square has become one of the main refuges for street children, like Yolerne, photographed here in July 2018, in Port-au-Prince. (Wilbert Fortuné)

“Since January 2010, I have had to live on the streets, sleeping on the ground in public squares, begging, to be able to cover my most basic needs,” says 22-year-old Marline (her name has been changed, at her request). Like all those in her situation, she cannot shake off her fragile and nervous air when spoken to. “I live in fear because people openly abuse us.”

Many young girls are faced with the same plight, and their number has grown since the earthquake of 2010 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, which destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes. Junior Fleurimont, a Haitian sociologist and professor at Jean Price-Mars University, refers to them as children totally cut off from their families, who choose or are forced to live on the streets on a permanent basis. “It is a very worrying social phenomenon,” he points out. But in Haiti, the main structural factor at the root of this problem is poverty: 78 per cent of the population lives below the absolute poverty line and 56 per cent in extreme poverty. “More than half of the children live in overcrowded and dilapidated homes and often sleep on the ground,” reports UNICEF.

In this context, “many children rapidly find themselves homeless,” explains sociologist and feminist Martine Jean. “For these young girls, the streets have become a territory, a workplace and their home.” Some of them leave their families for reasons they do not want to discuss. Some have been thrown out of their homes to reduce the number of mouths to feed, others have fled abusive situations. There are also those who are sent on “missions” towork as domestics, or are entrusted to other people, sometimes complete strangers whose financial situation is healthier, in the hope of giving them a better life.

According to the Haitian Ministry of Public Health and Population, nearly 87 per cent of children between the ages of five and 17 had already worked in 2011, including 250,000 children in forced domestic labour.

In April 2011, UNICEF in Haiti had identified more than 3,000 street children in the metropolitan area. The situation has not been resolved since then. The number of boys on the street is much higher than the young girls. Liline (not her real name) is one of these girls. She has been sleeping on Champ-de-Mars Square in the capital city of Port-au-Prince along with other street children since 2012. Aged 16, she makes a living from begging. Her story is not unusual. “I live on the streets and I am waiting for the day when I can finally lead a normal life, because there is always hope,” she tells Equal Times.

It is a situation that many people simply cannot ignore. Monique Louis, who lives in the neighbourhood, is one of them. “The conditions they have to live in are very disturbing. They are not afraid of infectious diseases. Sometimes I help them, giving them clothes, food. Because they are, above all, people in need.”

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Most of them come from cities in the provinces. They have been welcomed to Port-au-Prince by relatives or other families, who they leave after suffering abuses. Living on the streets, they have virtually no access to education or health care. They often go hungry, suffer violence and feel rejected, excluded from society. Many of them have to sell their bodies in order to survive. The common denominator is that they all come from needy families.

Seventeen-year-old Mima Joseph has been living on the streets since 2010, when her parents died in the earthquake. “This is where I sleep, drink, eat,” she says with a shaky voice. “I get by, but it depends on my boyfriend’s income. He cleans cars, which allows him to earn a bit of money. It’s an old piece of cloth that gives us food; that helps us. It’s the only solution we have, and we hold on to it dearly.”

Few specific social services for girls

These young women and girls are left to fend for themselves and, with three-quarters of them being sexually exploited, they are among the individuals most likely to be infected with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV/AIDS. “Yes, I have begged from passers-by, but in 2017, I joined the girls that live in the shadows,” continues Liline.

Some of them seek refuge in drugs and alcohol. “I drink a lot of alcohol, and sometimes I smoke one joint after another, hoping it will help me cope with the despair,” confirms Mima, adding that she has already suffered violence at the hands of police officers for smoking marijuana on the street.

The government is making efforts to help these young girls, with the ‘Delmas 3’ reception centre, for example, opened in November 2013 under the presidency of Michel Martelly, which can house up to 400 children, according to the authorities.

“Street children are victims of social injustice and so they need support to help them integrate within society,” says an official, who does not wish to give his name.

But the scheme remains inadequate and does not take into account the different needs of the two sexes. “The centres do try to take care of the children, but their resources are very limited relative to the number of children,” says 17-year-old Ti Simone (not her real name). The girls tell Equal Times that meals are served in small quantities. “What we are given to eat is never enough,” confirms Ti Simone.

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The Institute for Social Welfare and Research (IBESR) presented a report on the condition of children’s homes and reception centres on 11 October 2018. Only 35 out of the 755 centres and orphanages housing nearly 28,000 children are up to standard. “Significant numbers of children regularly suffer sexual and physical abuse,” says IBESR director Arielle Jeanty Villedrouin.

The operating difficulties encountered in the reception centres, controlled by the Ministry of Social Affairs, are undoubtedly linked to the lack of resources, but also, in the context of Haiti, to poor planning and poor governance.

Strengthening institutions to improve child protection

The Ministry of National Education, under the presidency of Joseph Michel Martelly, also launched the Programme for Universal Free and Compulsory Education (PSUGO), aimed at facilitating access to education for children from disadvantaged groups, in particular street children. But according to local actors, the programme has been nothing but a huge corruption scheme, with funding being awarded to ‘ghost’ schools. “The biggest problem in Haiti is corruption. This programme was a wonderful project designed to help people from disadvantaged groups, but too much money has been wasted, embezzled,” says Miguel Célestin, a school director.

“Mismanagement has caused this programme to break down. We children are forced to live without going to school. Honestly, the biggest problem is school, because you don’t get any education,” says Liline, her voice trembling.

Yvan Louis, a sociologist by training, says that the problem of integrating these children needs to be tackled differently, especially for girls. The institutions responsible, such as the Institute of Social Welfare and Research (IBESR), which is a technical and administrative agency attached to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour (MAST) and the Port-au-Prince city authorities, must call on competent resources to enable them to manage the situation. “Giving access to school is not enough, a whole integration process geared towards social inclusion is required to make it really effective,” he says. It is the mayors who are primarily responsible for children in difficult situations in their municipalities. “But few mayors are aware of their responsibilities towards these girls,” concludes Louis.

In May 2003, a Minors’ Protection Brigade (Brigade de Protection des Mineurs) was set up. According to Barrister Cyprien Jean Robert, a lawyer at the Bar of Port-au-Prince, the aim of the brigade is to prevent crimes and offences against children, as well as offences committed by children. The justice system has a duty to ensure that minors that are accused or judged guilty of an offence or crime are indeed treated as minors.

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