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THE AMERICAS AND CARIBBEAN feature story for Haiti

© UNICEF Haiti/2010/Monier

Nine months after the 12 January earthquake, Elisabeth, 16, and her sister Naldy, 19, still sleep in a small tent with their mother and brother in downtown Port-au-Prince, surrounded by rubble.

“This life full of dust”: After the earthquake in Haiti

By Benjamin Steinlechner

Port-au-Prince, October 2010 – Nine months after the earthquake, Elisabeth, 16, sleeps in a pop-up tent with her mother, sister and brother, in downtown Port-au-Prince.

Sitting on the steps beneath the door frame of what had been her family’s modest middle-class home, Elisabeth looks suspiciously at the ceiling above her. It hasn’t yet collapsed but seems to be on the verge of falling.

“The earthquake has changed my life, ” she said. Struggling to put her feelings into words, Elisabeth relived the events of 12 January as she spoke: “I am very emotional because of this . . . I don’t always feel well . . . I am always fearful that this could happen again.” She looks nervously across the street where the heavy rubble of a fallen house buried another family.

“Before the earthquake, everything we wanted we had,” she continued. “Since the earthquake, we can’t ask my mother for anything too expensive because she doesn’t have the means . . . before the earthquake we were much closer to each other. Now we are more detached because each of us has problems. Before we were very happy, now it’s a little difficult to be happy about this life full of dust . . . it’s too hard.” She stops and turns her face away.

Life for children and adolescents in Haiti could be extremely difficult even before the earthquake. Nearly 50 per cent of young people in the labour market did not have a job; a majority of 20-year-olds had not even finished secondary school. A lack of health services, information, education and family counselling has negatively affected young people’s health. In some areas, nearly 45 per cent of girls had had a child before age 20. Violence was, for many, a part of everyday life; and girls faced a high risk of sexual abuse.

Before the earthquake, however, the Government of Haiti had shown a growing commitment to prioritizing children and youth, and children and young people were involved in a movement to transform their country. But the disaster dramatically complicated the difficult task of assuring the well-being of Haiti’s youngest citizens.

“I can’t be like I was before because life isn’t made to be like that. I don’t see my future,” said Elisabeth. “It’s too hard to think about my future. My mother would need money to be able to help us . . . We don’t have a father anymore, so our mom is our mother and father, too.”

Elisabeth helps her mother by doing the laundry, washing the dishes and taking care of other household chores. “I don’t want to see my mother suffer,” she said. “I don’t like that.”

“For my future I wish to be very honest and help those who have nothing. I spend so much time with my mom having nothing and I want to help others so they do not have to go through the same thing.”

She would like to go to school again – “I like my school a lot, very, very much! It’s the only hope I have.” – but is not sure the little money the family has left will get her through this school year.

Young people like Elisabeth have made their voices heard in a series of post-earthquake focus group discussions in Port-au-Prince, followed by mini-forums for youth organized by UNICEF together with the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Civic Action and their partners in the Global Movement for Children (GMC) and in collaboration with UN partners, in particular with UNFPA, UNESCO and the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).

Regional consultations were held with youth nationwide, bringing together more than 100 youth representatives of the local population, with a focus on the most vulnerable, including children living on the streets or without family care, restavek (children sent by their families into domestic servitude) and children with disabilities. The three-day consultations provided training on children’s rights and offered youth-run multimedia workshops to empower attendees to discuss their experiences and express their opinions.

The purpose of these mini-forums was to ensure that the voices of Haitian children are reflected in Haiti’s political agenda and that stakeholders at all levels keep children’s interests in mind – and put children at the centre of their efforts.

A year after the earthquake, Elisabeth has realized it will take years before life returns to normal. But she is hopeful. She likes to walk around with her sister in the neighbourhood just before sunset. The piece of cake the girls usually get at a little stand not far from their home helps them escape reality, and the dust – if only for a few moments.