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Joining forces to protect Haiti’s children: Child-Friendly Spaces in unlikely places

© UNICEF Haiti/2010
Yolette with her son Yglesia,

By: Cifora Monier and Jill Van den Brule


Petionville, Port au Prince, Haiti, 19 May 2010 - “Sa ki pa nan espas n’ap voye yo ale.” Those that do not belong in this space should be out of this place. Over 100 voices rise joyously to affirm this Haitian Creole phrase with harmonious confidence. Their owners feel protected in more ways than one. Beneath the hills of Port-au-Prince, in Place St Pierre, they have learned that they have their own space where unwanted strangers are not welcome. It is here, behind the Police Commissioner’s Office, where UNICEF and partners have created a safe space for children.


Rebuilding community ties

This is the Child-Friendly Space at Pétionville Police Station, located in the station car park. The Haitian Police plays an important role in accommodating local organization, IDEJEN, by providing them a secure space for the benefit of children from the community and those who have been displaced by the January 12 earthquake.


“This is a means of building back the bonds of the community and ensuring that the internally displaced children are not further marginalized by the community at large,” says Joanne Dessureault from UNICEF, which is supporting IDEJEN.


About 75 per cent of the children here have been displaced by the quake. In total there are 120 children and young people ranging in age from 5 to 24 years.  They are separated into age groups and divided into two shifts, a morning and an afternoon shift every day except Sunday. 


Promoting healing and reinforcing resilience

The biggest concern for those working at the Child-Friendly Space is the mental health of the children.


“Following the traumatic events they witnessed on January 12, these children suffer from symptoms such as: phobia, fear of concrete houses, anxiety attacks and stress when they hear noises that remind them of the earthquake,” says the programme’s psychologist Jean Robert Desrosiers.


“To this day there are children who have nightmares every night. Thanks to various psychosocial activities realized at the centre, they gradually come to terms with the horrors they have witnessed. The children are resilient for they are still small and will fully heal with time.” 


Five year old Yglesias is a good example. The boy now lives with his mother Yolette in the St. Pierre Camp. They moved there on the evening of 12 January following the collapse of their home. Yolette, a single mother, had a small business selling rice in her old neighborhood but now finds herself unemployed and without any resources to raise her child. Yglesia’s school was completely destroyed and his mother no longer has the financial means to send her son to school even if most public schools have temporarily waived fees following the earthquake.


At the Child-Friendly Space children are given one meal a day and clean drinking water – for the majority, this is the only meal they will get each day according to Joseph Adlaire from IDEJEN. The police also provide the centre with water for the latrines. 


“I cannot afford to buy him a uniform or the school supplies that he needs to attend a regular school,” admits Yglesias’ mother. “It was by sheer chance that I met one of the administrators of IDEJEN while he was mobilizing parents in the camp to send their children to the Child-Friendly Space, which is about 200 metres away. As I cannot afford to send my son to a regular school for the moment, this was the perfect opportunity for Yglesias.” 


When asked if she is happy with the programme, Yolette gets emotional and rubs her son’s head affectionately.


“I don’t even have a piece of bread to give to my son, this centre is like a godsend to me. My son is provided with a decent meal, he is taken care of by specialized monitors who help him deal with his continued nightmares about the quake. I just like to see him happy and somewhat normal when he is around the other children.”


Helping families protect their children

This partnership is an excellent example of what can happen when civil society, local and international partners join forces to help children deal with the aftermath of an emergency – but such partnerships are also central to reinforcing the community and family’s ability to protect their children. Here parents work with teams of professionals, which include a social worker, psychologist and two counselors.  They attend sessions on how to identify when their children are at risk and learn skills to prepare them for future disasters. Peer educators work with youth on issues such as prevention of sexual abuse and violence. This approach is also part of a larger goal, keeping children off the streets and away from juvenile delinquency and promoting family-based care.


Building citizenship and reinforcing Haitian family values

Haitian values also come alive here. “Timoun se byen malere,” explains Samuel Brutus, IDEJEN Coordinator.  This phrase from Haitian Creole means “Children are treasures of the miserable” – referring to the fact that Haitian parents invest so much in their children.  

The police is also making an investment, teaching the children about civic responsibility and good citizenship. Since the quake the police have also created a team to receive women and girls who have experience sexual  violence. 


 “The police have a role to serve and protect as in all countries and children play a large role in our mission so, even if we didn’t have much space, we made room to receive these children,” says Inspecteur-Principal Louis Jeune. “We recognized with this emergency that this was a necessity.” 


“If they were on the streets, they would be witnesses to crimes committed by their brothers and fathers. The fact that they are here is a way to reduce crime.” 


Above all, there is a true sense of solidarity in this project, of a community coming together from its constituent parts and valuing children.


 “We are good friends with IDEJEN – you can see this with your own eyes,” smiles the Inspector-Principal. “Together what we are encouraging in these children is to be useful members of society. Today they are our children but tomorrow they will be society’s adults.”    


Through this collaboration, everybody wins. Children here have developed a trusting relationship with the police who have become role models to many of them. This makes for a safer, more cohesive community for all – a vital step to rebuilding the social fabric of Haiti.


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