Haitian children at mercy of armed gangs as schools close — Global Issues

Steve (not his real name) dreamed of becoming a teacher when his life was turned upside down last year. Due to the outbreak of gang-related violence in his neighborhood, his school was closed, and the 15-year-old boy roamed the streets, at the mercy of armed groups. “I joined the gang in February 2021. They saw me walking and called me and asked me to work for them. There have been other kids like me. “

According to a report published by two local youth-focused organizations, 13% of children surveyed in a troubled neighborhood in the capital, Port-au-Prince, said they had been in direct contact. or indirectly with members of armed gangs as they attempt to recruit them.

I will be killed if I leave the gang

They offered to pay the children large sums of money, and threatened to kill them if they did not comply. “Every day, as soon as they sent me to spy on the police, they would pay me 1,500 or 2,500 Haitian crockery ($15-25). They told me they would kill me if I didn’t want to stay with them,” Steve said.

In 2021, clashes between rival armed gangs broke out in several urban areas of the capital Port-au-Prince. More than 19,000 people including 15,000 women and children have been forced to leave their homes due to violent acts such as murder, kidnapping; Hundreds of houses were burned and damaged.

This year, the gang war is getting more and more intense. Since April 24, half a million children have lost access to education in Port-au-Prince, where about 1,700 schools have closed, according to government figures.

Steve talks to a UNICEF worker.

© UNICEF / Joseph

Steve talks to a UNICEF worker.

Broken childhood

Steve had a peaceful life as a suburban kid. He played with his younger brother and two sisters, and enjoyed his childhood with his grandmother. “I often cycle, play video games and watch movies until evening. Sometimes, I go to get water for my grandmother and I also clean the house,” he recalled.

Violence is increasingly impacting schools and shattering the dreams of many children. An assessment by the education ministry between April and May 2022 of 859 schools in Port-au-Prince found that 31 per cent of them had been hacked and more than 50 had closed. born in. A large number of schools have been occupied by gangs or are serving as temporary housing for families displaced by violence.

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

Gang violence in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is terrorizing both adults and children.

UNDP Haiti / Borja Lopetegui Gonzalez

Gang violence in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is terrorizing both adults and children.

Violation of children’s rights

Violence, school closures and idleness lead to the enrollment of children in armed groups. “Where I live there are always shootings and often people just can’t get out. Schools are closed, and we are all left in the streets. When you live on the street, you become a street kid, and that’s what gets us into the gangs,” Steve said.

Bruno Maes said: “Giving children weapons to fight and using them as soldiers or spies is a violation of their children’s rights and is condemned by both national and international law. UNICEF Representative in Haiti. “I feel sad when kids who are willing to learn and teachers who are willing to teach cannot do so because they feel unsafe. Children must be able to go to school safely, play freely, enjoy being a child and be given the opportunity to develop to their full potential.”

Steve has now been arrested and is awaiting trial on charges related to his gang activity. While in custody, he is being helped by the Brigade to Protect Juveniles (BPM) supported by UNICEF.

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