Haiti’s Horrendous Teenage Prostitution Problem
The women who work the streets near Champs de Mars, Port au Prince’s main park, are brazen. They pose under streetlights, where the men drinking kleren, cheap, homemade alcohol, at makeshift bars, and the foreigners returning to Le Plaza Hotel can see them. Should a car pause, just long enough, along noisy Rue Capois, the main road that separates the sea of tents and tarps of the Champs de Mars camp from the hotel, the women approach, flirt, and proposition.
The teenagers who stand a few blocks away, on the dark corner by the Monsieur Henri Photo Studio, pose too. They lean against the fence, hips jutted out, their legs exposed by scanty pink shorts and skimpy dresses. But they look like little girls playing dress up, with their bright purple eye shadow, tinted hair, and glossy red lips. And they stay in the shadows, run from cars that linger too long, as if they at once want to be seen but at the same time want to make themselves invisible.
“This is how we make money. This is how we eat,” says Madeleine, a 16-year-old with dark eyes, full lips, and a shoulder-length black weave. “But I am ashamed. I feel embarrassed of what I am doing. I have no choice, I must accept what is going on, but it is not my will.”
It is not like teenage prostitution didn’t exist in Haiti before the January 2010 earthquake that left 1.5 million displaced, tens of thousands of them living in haphazardly-placed tents in Champs de Mars. But in the 16 months since, the number of girls, some as young as 8, who have been forced to have sex in order to survive has drastically increased.
The situation will likely get worse as in late May, shortly after President Michel Martelly took office, police destroyed about 200 makeshift tents in Delmas, leaving their occupants without anywhere else to go. According to the International Organization of Migration, 25 percent of those in camps have been threatened with eviction.
“If there are no safe places for girls to go, no plan for transition, some will be forced to exchange sex for shelter,” says Emilie Parry, a consultant with Refugees International.
Many girls were orphaned when their parents died in the disaster, and were left to fend for themselves, often having sex with men in order to secure a place in a tent or under a tarp. The problem was exacerbated when organizations stopped distributing food in the camps.
“General food distributions by the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) were abruptly ended just three months after the earthquake,” says Melanie Teff, senior advocate for women's rights at Refugees International. “They were in fact stopped at the request of the Haitian government, which wanted a quick return to normality.”
The government’s plan was to replace food distribution with cash-for-work and cash-for-food programs, and Elizabeth Jennings, external relations officer at WFP Haiti, said that WFP only stopped the general food distribution after food prices had returned to pre-earthquake levels.
“It enabled economic activity to resume, which also favors the most vulnerable, especially women who live from small trade, mainly the sale of fresh food and cooked meals and snacks,” wrote Jennings, in an email. “People now consider that one of the best decisions because it enabled small businesses, very often owned and run by women, to resume.”
Nonetheless, the decision to stop food distribution left many girls without a way to eat, and they were forced to survive the only way they could see how, by trading sex for money or food in order to avoid starvation.
Madeleine’s parents died before the earthquake, and she lives with her aunt, cousin and 2-year-old brother under a tarp in the Champs de Mars camp. Her aunt has had five surgeries to remove various tumors from her body and is unable to work, so when organizations stopped distributing food, the family went hungry.
“Some days, we would spend the whole day without eating, one day, two days like this,” says Madeleine. “My neighbors and friends would say, ‘You are a young woman, your aunt cannot work, so you have to do something.’”
Madeleine had been attending school before the earthquake, as her mother, who was a vegetable vendor and traveled between the countryside and Port au Prince, used to send money to pay for school. Madeleine had no vocational skills, and so when some girls from the camp told her she could make money as they did, working as a prostitute, she went with them.
“The first night, they told me to stand there and wait,” says Madeleine. “A few minutes after, one of the girls left with a man and then came back and said ‘Okay, I made money. It’s easy, you just need to have sex and then they are going to give you 100 or 150 gourds [$2.50 or $3.70] and that's it.’”
Madeleine is reluctant to share details of what happened that first night—she looks down as she talks, and her hands and feet are in constant, nervous motion. She says she was so ashamed that she could not go back the following evening.
“But after 15, 20 days, I realized that I cannot eat, so I decided to start again,” she says. “But I still don’t feel normal when I am having sex with a guy like this. I don't know if the man had a shower, I don't know what he was doing before, and I am going to stick my body to his body and that’s not easy.”
Because the girls are young, and do not feel empowered, few if any can make men wear condoms, which means that many contract diseases or become pregnant.
Eramithe Delva, one of the co-founders of KOFAVIV, a Haitian grassroots organization founded by and for rape survivors, says that of the 35 girl prostitutes the organization has been working with since the earthquake, 19 have become pregnant.
KOFAVIV offers some food and financial support for the girls, but it is never enough.
“We supply them with basic things like sugar, soap,” says Delva. “Sometimes we have delegations that come from abroad with things for babies, because these girls will never have money for say a diaper, they will use a dirty sheet.”
When 15-year-old Imogene came to KOFAVIV a few days ago with her 6 day old son wrapped in a towel, his face pockmarked with dozens of mosquito bites, Delva gave her 500 gourds ($12.50). Imogene was apathetic, awkwardly holding the baby as if she was not quite sure what to do with him. Delva says that sometimes the babies die, because their mothers are too young to know how to properly care for them.
“In a case like Imogene, you can see the way she is, she doesn’t have anywhere to sleep, she’s dependent on someone else to give her a place to stay, so the life of the baby and the mother are at risk,” says Delva.
KOFAVIV has been offering training for the girls—sewing, jewelry and pottery making—to try to give them another way to support themselves. The organization also holds weekly support meetings, to help boost the girls’ self-confidence.
“We have to work on their self esteem, because sometimes they consider if they get 25 gourds [60 cents] from someone, that is their worth, they are nothing anymore,” says Delva. “We provide tools so they can work, so they know if they can earn 25 gourds, they can earn more with the tools and training we give them.”
For the past few days, 17-year-old Jeanne has been working on a beading project at KOFAVIV. U.S.-based Fairwinds Trading is paying the women, all rape victims, and girls $7 a day to make necklaces that will be sold at Anthropologie stores this summer.
Jeanne lives by herself in a small tent in the Pétionville camp, which is run by Sean Penn’s JP/HRO. She had been living with her aunt and stepmother before the earthquake, however, they were killed when the house crumbled.
A few weeks after the earthquake, Jeanne was sitting outside her collapsed house, begging for money for food.
“I had not eaten for three days, and I asked a man and he agreed to give me money but said I have to give him something back,” says Jeanne. “As I had not eaten for three days, I decided to give him something back, and this is how I started.”
Through prostitution, Jeanne was able to save enough to buy a tent, a cell phone, and clothes. Her plan was to continue until she could save enough to return to school, but two days ago, a doctor came to KOFAVIV with results from a recent check up and informed Jeanne that she is pregnant. Even with the training she has received from KOFAVIV, she is not sure how she is going to care for a baby when she can barely support herself.
“My future is spoiled and I see black,” says Jeanne. “What I have seen before, that is not the reality. I always had in my head I could have gone to a professional school and I could have learned something to make money, but now look what happened.”
One of the other issues that these girls face is rape. Madeleine has been raped and beaten several times, and sometimes, after the men have sex with her, they refuse to pay.
She only stays out on the streets long enough to make150 gourds ($3.70), which is just enough to buy food for herself and her family. Then she returns to the tent, where she sleeps in a cramped corner on a dirty blanket on the floor with her brother.
“Usually I take 50 gourds [$1.25] that night to eat and I save 100 gourds [$2.50] for the next day,” Madeleine says. “With that money, I prepare food for everyone in the tent. I cannot buy rice, but I prepare spaghetti, something that is very easy and cheap.”
By day, at times, Madeleine seems just like any other teenage girl. She jokes, laughing raucously with neighbors, and stands in the doorway to the tent painting her nails a deep brown. She does this every week, she says, because it makes her feel pretty. But as she stares at her hand, waiting for her nails to dry, she becomes wistful.
“I don’t like what she does, but I don’t have another way to provide,” says Madeleine’s aunt, Marguerite, as she turns to look at Madeleine.
At first, when Marguerite saw Madeleine going out, all dressed up, she was angry, because she assumed Madeleine was going to parties. But when Madeleine returned with money, Marguerite realized what she was doing, but has had to turn a blind eye. She would like Madeleine to return to school, but there is barely enough money to eat, let alone pay fees.
Like many Haitians, Madeleine and her aunt believe that President Martelly will do something to help them.
“I am expecting [the government] will do something for us because they say they are going to do something for those people living in the camps,” says Madeleine.
Requests for a comment from President Martelly about the issue of child prostitution went unanswered, but Parry says that the Haitian government and international community are going to have to do a better job of coordinating efforts to help not just the girls, but all displaced persons.
“There needs to be long-term investment and a comprehensive plan for creating sustainable economic viability,” says Parry. “It really requires listening, which seems to be the greatest failure of international humanitarian systems.”
Parry says that organizations like Fonkoze, Zafen and The Lambi Fund, which offer micro-financing, education and training, could provide a way out of prostitution for these young women.
“They could develop marketable skills, begin a business or get hired for a job, save money, afford to move out of the camp into a community, and so on,” says Parry. “Of course, there are other pieces to the puzzle which could be addressed with good coordination across resources and agencies: safe places to live and land to live on, homes that are built to safe and affordable standards, community networks, water and sanitation.”
For the foreseeable future, Madeleine will have to continue working as a prostitute. Now that the rainy season has begun, it has been hard for her to work at night, which means that she and her family have again been going days without food.
Before she goes to sleep, Madeleine prays that God will send someone who can help her and her family. Her greatest wish is to return to school. Sometimes, Madeleine sees her old classmates who ask when she plans to reenroll. Occasionally, she runs into them when she is out working on the street at night.
“I still have friends that I used to have before the earthquake, but they don't know what kind of life I have,” she says. “When they say ‘Madeleine, what are you doing here?’ I say, ‘I came here to buy something,’ or ‘I am waiting for someone.’”
To cheer herself up on days when she is especially depressed, Madeleine says she remembers the afternoons spent on the streets with these other friends, doing other things. She and her friends would joke with each other and make mischief by playfully bumping into people as they walked home from school.
“Now when I go to fetch water and I look at the girls coming from school in their uniforms, I have that memory, and I smile,” she says.
This reporting project was supported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.