From the classroom to the armed gang: Steve's shattered dream

Gang-related violence has led to school closures, and children have become easy prey for gang recruitment.

A young boy sitting with UNICEF staff.
12 June 2022

Rising gang crime limits access to schools and prevents thousands of children from accessing education in the metropolitan area of ​​Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince. Since 2020, gang-related violence has led to school closures, and children have become easy prey for gang recruitment.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, June 10, 2022 - Steve (not his real name) dreamed of becoming a schoolteacher when his life turned upside down last year. Due to the upsurge in gang-related violence in his neighborhood, his school was closed, and the 15-year-old found himself roaming around on 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 were other children like me.

According to a report published by two youth-focus organizations, CAPAC partnering with UNICEF and OCNH, 13 per cent of the children surveyed in Croix des Bouquets and in Port-au-Prince say they have been in direct or indirect contact with members of armed gangs as they tried to recruit them. They offer to pay the children a lot of money, while 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. They told me they'll kill me if I don'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 flee their homes due to acts of violence such as killings, kidnappings and hundreds of houses burned or damaged. This year, the gang war has resumed with renewed vigour. Since 24 April, half a million children have lost access to education in the Metropolitan Area of ​​Port-au-Prince where some 1,700 schools are closed, according to the Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training (MENFP).

A young boy sitting alone.
This young boy was recruited by an armed group. During his detention, he is assisted by the Brigade for the Protection of Minors (BPM) supported by UNICEF.

Broken childhood

Steve led a peaceful life as a suburban child. He played with his younger brother and two younger sisters, and thoroughly enjoyed his childhood with his grandmother. “I was at the 3rd year fundamental class. I used to ride my bike, play video games and watch movies until dark. Sometimes, I went to fetch water for my grandmother and I also cleaned the house,” he recalls. His father was absence and Steve had remained in contact with his mother. And his studies mattered to him because it was the only way he had to achieve his dream. " I went to my mother's house on my way to school. Then I took my book to read. 

As it affects more and more schools, violence has shattered the dream of the children of the capital. An assessment conducted by MENFP between April and May on 859 schools in Cité Soleil, Croix-des-Bouquets, Delmas, Ganthier, Port-au-Prince North and South, Pétion-Ville and Tabarre, revealed that 31 per cent of schools were attacked, 18 per cent are not functional and 6 per cent are completely closed, including 78.4 per cent due to violence. 8.2 per cent of schools are occupied, including 72.3 per cent by armed gangs and 12.3 per cent by displaced families. The number of students in classes has fallen from 238,000 at the start of the gang crisis in April to 184,000 now.

This young boy tells how his life was turned upside down after his school closed.

Vicious circle: violence - school closure – child recruitment - violence

Violence, school closures and idleness lead inexorably to the enrollment of children into armed groups who make more violence. “There are always shootings where I live and often people cannot get out. The schools are closed, and we are all abandoned in the streets. When you live on the street, you become a street child, and that's what gets us into gangs,” says Steve.

“Giving children weapons to fight and using them as soldiers or spies is a violation to their child rights and condemned by both national and international laws. It saddens me that children who are willing to learn and teachers willing to educate cannot do so because they feel unsafe. Children must be able to attend school safely, play freely and enjoy being a child and given a chance to develop to their fullest potential,” said Bruno Maes, UNICEF Representative in Haiti.

Steve has now been caught and is awaiting trial on charges related to his gang activity. While in detention, he is being helped by the UNICEF-supported Brigade for the Protection of Minors (BPM).

In 2021, more than 95 per cent of incarcerated children in Haiti were in prolonged pretrial detention. BPM is working to ensure that he can benefit from laws that will ensure a quick timely judicial process. So far, UNICEF has supported the creation of Children's Courts (TPE) in West, South and North Departments.