Steve (not his real name) dreamed of becoming a school teacher when his life was turned upside down last year. Due to an upsurge in gang-related violence in his area, his school was closed and the 15-year-old roamed the streets at the mercy of the armed groups. “I joined the gang in February 2021. They saw me walking and called and asked me to work for them. There were other children just like me.”
According to a report released by two local youth organizations, 13 percent of children surveyed in one troubled area of the capital, Port-au-Prince, say they were in direct or indirect contact with armed gang members when they tried to recruit them.
I will be killed if I leave the gang
They offer to pay the children big money, threatening to kill them if they don’t comply. “Every day, as soon as they send me to watch the police, they will pay me 1,500 or 2,500 Haitian gourdes (15-25 US dollars). They told me they would kill me if I didn’t want to stay with them,” says Steve.
In 2021, clashes between rival armed gangs erupted 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 leave their homes due to acts of violence such as murders, kidnappings; hundreds of houses were burned or damaged.
This year, the gang war has intensified. Since April 24, half a million children have lost access to education in Port-au-Prince, where some 1,700 schools have been closed, according to government figures.
Steve led a peaceful life in the suburbs. He played with his younger brother and two younger sisters and thoroughly enjoyed his childhood with his grandmother. “I used to ride my bike, play video games and watch movies until dark. Sometimes I went to fetch water for my grandmother and also cleaned the house,” he recalls.
Violence is affecting more and more schools and has shattered the dream of many children. An assessment by the Ministry of Education between April and May 2022 of 859 schools in Port-au-Prince found that 31% were attacked and more than 50 closed their doors to students. A large number of schools have been occupied by gangs or serve as temporary housing for families displaced by the violence.
Classroom numbers have dropped from 238,000 at the start of the gang crisis in April to 184,000 now.
Child rights violations
Violence, school closures and idleness inevitably lead to the recruitment of children into armed groups. “Where I live, there is constant shooting and often people cannot get out. Schools are closed and we are all left on the streets. When you live on the street, you become a street kid, and that’s what makes us join gangs,” says Steve.
“Giving children weapons to fight and using them as soldiers or spies is a violation of their child rights and is condemned by both national and international laws,” says Bruno Maes. UNICEF Representative for Haiti. “It saddens me that children who want to learn and teachers who want to teach can’t because they feel insecure. Children should be able to attend school safely, play freely and enjoy being children, and be able to reach their full potential.”
Steve is caught and is awaiting trial for his gang’s activities. While in detention, he is assisted by the UNICEF-supported Juvenile Protection Team (BPM).