Haiti is out of control, as gang-related violence has reached a level not seen in decades. With no government in place, ruthless armed gangs rule the capital Port-au-Prince, terrorizing the population through attacks, kidnappings, rapes and killings.
The gangs are controlling many roads and blocking access to a key fuel terminal, causing difficulties to get fuel to different cities. Subsequently, food, drinking water and other basic goods are in short supply. In some areas, hospitals and schools are closed, and thousands of children and families have fled their homes.
“Many families are struggling and depend on our assistance to survive,” says Faimy Carmelle Loiseau, National Director of SOS Children’s Villages in Haiti. “There is a great need for simply basic supplies, but also to support the mental health needs of children, some of whom have experienced violence directly.”
Fortunately, the hundreds of children and young people cared in the SOS Children’s Villages in the country are safe. Another bright spot is that the schools run by SOS Children’s Villages remain open to serve hundreds of children from the villages and community, and provide what for some is their only meal during the day.
But, especially in the capital, the situation of children is dire.
Eight out of ten Haitians currently spend less on meals, and the country is among the top ten most affected by food price inflation, according to the World Bank. The World Food Programme reports that almost half of the population are facing a food crisis. Around one in five children is not growing properly due to poor nutrition. The staff in the SOS Children’s Villages family strengthening program sees this on a regular basis, Ms. Loiseau says.
“Life is extremely difficult, especially for families who were facing hardship even before this latest crisis,” she says. “Families with single parents, many whom have no chance to find work in the current crisis, are struggling. They have no money to buy food or other necessities.”
SOS Children’s Villages’ community centres and schools provide children with a meal per day.
“Some children come to school merely to get food,” says Ms. Loiseau. “One child was spotted not finishing his provided lunch. When asked, he said that he was saving it to take home to his older sisters. His family didn’t have enough to eat. Providing food is a parent’s responsibility, children shouldn’t have to worry about that. Yet we see a lot of that these days.”
Children not spared
The ongoing violence and widespread impunity has led to people in several communities taking thing in their own hands. By the end of April, many vigilante brigades emerged to keep neighbourhoods safe, as the police had no control.
“This has calmed the situation some, but we don’t know for how long. And these brigades also retaliate violently,” Ms. Loiseau says.
Many children have witnessed family members being killed or raped. Others have been subjected to violence themselves. Some have lost their entire family.
“There’s an increasing demand for foster families. We are receiving a lot more request to take children into our care, but getting the approval from the authorities is a lengthy process. Last year we took 20 more children into our care, although some of them have been reunited with their families,” Ms. Loiseau says.
Fear and trauma
UN figures shows that more than 160,000 people have been displaced due to attacks from violent gangs rampaging through neighbourhoods.
“We have a large number of internally displaced people, children and families forced to leave their homes because they were not safe,” says Ms. Loiseau. “We see PTSD in both children and parents. There’s something about not knowing what will happen today. When you go to bed, you don’t know if you’ll be able to leave your house the next day. People here are afraid of tomorrow. The impact on mental health is severe.”
SOS Children’s Villages in Haiti provides children and families with mental health support, with psychologists in its schools, in children’s villages, and through a mobile health clinic.
Lack of electricity, the security situation and unpredictable attacks have led to many hospitals and schools being closed. The SOS Children’s Villages schools have so far been spared from attacks and demands from gangs to pay for security.
“We used to talk about child protection and safeguarding, but now we’re focusing on parent’s protection and support. Our co-workers are still conducting follow ups on their families in the local community, even though the security situation is was it is. Families in our family strengthening programs gives us a heads up when they know something is going down and warn us not to come that day. We have to do our best to keep up the support to the families in need.”
‘We have hope’
The National Director stresses the importance of mental health support. SOS Children’s Villages is using all available resources to provide psychosocial support for both children and parents.
“Families here need help and support to survive this, Haiti needs all the aid we can get. But they also need hope. In Haiti, we really have hope. We wouldn’t have survived so far without hope,” she says.