Broken childhood in Haiti: Homeless, unable to go to school, hunger, and violence

The children of Haiti face a challenging situation after the earthquake that hit the country.

By Molière Adely, Lucía Baldomir and Elisa Lieber

The children of Haiti face a challenging situation after the earthquake that hit the country, destroying houses, schools, and hospitals -- killing at least 2,200 people and injuring 12,200 amid generalized poverty.

Les Cayes, Haiti - "I wish they’d build us a house so we could sleep in peace,” begs Germine Pierre hopefully. The ten-year-old girl is one of 540,000 children affected by the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that devastated southwestern Haiti last August 14th.

In a matter of seconds, children were left without homes, schools, and adequate medical attention -- deepening the already existing vulnerabilities in one of the poorest countries in the region. Some were even left without families after being separated in the chaos or losing parents or guardians among the 2,207 casualties left by the earthquake.

When the earth shook, Germine was in bed. “I felt the tremor and ran out of bed because I didn’t understand what was happening.” The girl was rescued right on time from the entrance hallway to her house. “When I was almost out, a block fell on top of me. I could see crumbling walls as I tried to leave,” she recalls. She couldn’t pull herself out alone. Fortunately, her mother -- returning from the market at the time -- rescued her, but not before Germine had suffered injuries in her feet and sprained her right thumb. “It still hurts,” she says from the tent that has -- as for so many others -- become her home.

“When I saw that my sister was one of the victims, I cried,” explains Gerlin, Germine’s brother who went into shock during the earthquake and today accompanies his father, Jean Mari Pierre, to receive aid kits from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in the courtyard of the Jean Paul II National School, near the L’Islet Bridge.

The earthquake has destroyed everything and the population is desperate. Nearly 130,000 houses were damaged or completely destroyed, forcing many children and adolescents to move to the streets.

“Since the day of the earthquake, I’ve been sleeping on the ground with my children. The earthquake destroyed my house. I don’t know what to do,” says 25-year-old Rose Saline Fantaisie -- visibly overwhelmed -- while she prepares a soup for the family in front of the rubble of their home. Rose has a son and a daughter that sleep outdoors in Cavaillon, a town 19 kilometers from the city of Les Cayes, where nearly all the homes collapsed. Her young son is not well and refuses to eat. “There’s no hospital here and I don’t have money to take him anywhere else,” Rose laments. Before the hurricane, she and her husband sold fresco, a local treat made of shaved ice and syrup, but currently lack the means to continue with the business.

“Here in Cavaillon, a bag of water costs five Haitian gourdes (US$ 0.05). After the earthquake, when we need them, they’re difficult to get,” says Rose.

All of her hopes are now focused on the help she might receive from humanitarian organizations and Haitian authorities.

Amid the chaos, to ease the suffering and prevent epidemics of water-borne diseases, UNICEF distributed potable water, in addition to hygiene and sanitary materials. UNICEF also installed -- with financial support from the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) and Haiti's Directorate for Potable Water (DINEPA) -- more than four large safe water reservoirs in the areas hardest hit by the earthquake.

According to Joseph Beneche, a WASH programme officer for UNICEF Haiti, these containers store 10,000 liters of water, enough to supply 250 families a day. The children in these families will have access to potable water, which will avoid new diseases caused by consuming stagnant or untreated water. “We are in touch with the Communal Potable Water and Sanitation Technician (TEPAC). He will notify us as soon as the water runs out so we can refill the containers,” says Beneche.

But beyond water shortages, food is also scarce. In the streets, people affected by the earthquake do not have enough food to eat. An estimated 4.4 million Haitians (nearly 40 per cent of the population) grapple with food insecurity, while 217,000 children are estimated to suffer acute malnutrition.

UNICEF is working to reach families with therapeutic foods and ready-to-use nutritional supplements to prevent further deterioration of nutrition and health of children already facing alarming rates of malnutrition.

Lacking food and many sustained injuries during the earthquake, children and their families also face difficulties accessing medical services, which collapsed during the disaster. Today, children lay in beds or makeshift tarps in the middle of the street or in hospital courtyards, while they receive saline solutions or are treated for physical injuries.

Before the earthquake, UNICEF estimated that 2.95 million people -- including 1.2 million children, 400,000 pregnant women, and adolescents -- required emergency medical attention, which had become difficult to access due to restrictions put in place during the COVID-19 epidemic.

The arrival of aid has not been easy either, forced to maneuver the prevailing climate of violence in the country, as well as floods and mudslides caused by Tropical Storm Grace. Gangs are yet another threat to children and adolescents in Haiti. President Jovenel Moise was assassinated just a month ago.

In this context, schools could have been a refuge for the children amid the desolation. But over 300 (ten percent of schools located in Grand’Anse, Nippes and Sud, the three departments hardest hit by the earthquake) were destroyed. Uncertainty even surrounds the possibility of school reopening after a year without education for some children, further jeopardizing the future of Haiti’s youth. Before the earthquake, according to UNICEF estimates, 500,000 children were already at risk of dropping out.

Germine had just graduated to the fifth grade, but she’s afraid she won’t be able to attend classes because her school is one of the 94 identified as destroyed or damaged by The Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training (MENFP) and UNICEF in the South Department. “My school building collapsed. So, I’m not sure I’ll be able to go to school,” says the girl who hopes to become a nurse to learn how to cure people.

Before the earthquake, according to UNICEF data, 1.9 million children faced emergency situations in a country of 11 million where the vast majority of the population is poor and that had already been hit by another earthquake that caused 300,000 deaths in 2010.

As per UNICEF estimates, 15 million dollars are required to respond to urgent needs of people affected by the earthquake. These funds would assist 385,000 people, including 167,000 children under the age of five, over a period of eight weeks. This aid covers programmes focused on health, water, sanitation, child protection, education, social protection, and communication, as well as direct cash transfers to the most vulnerable and other measures designed to at least start improving the living conditions of children in Haiti.