AIDS Stalks Haiti's Children
REUTERS, April 8, 2004
PETIONVILLE, Haiti (Reuters) - As dusk falls over the hills around
Haiti's slum-ridden capital, former classmates Widney and Casandra head
outside to sit on a street corner, watch the cars go by and dream of
finding that perfect job.
The giggling young girls also wonder how many men they are going to have
sex with that night, how much cash they'll earn and when they should get
their next AIDS test.
``I didn't want to be a prostitute,'' Widney whispers shyly in Creole,
Haiti's language of broken French, as half a dozen other waif-like
teen-age girls gather in this corner of upmarket Petionville, on the
slopes just outside Port-au-Prince.
``I want to go back to school. But I have to eat,'' she says, her voice
trailing off and head turning as a car pulls up nearby.
Clips in her hair, eyes glinting beneath caked makeup, Widney says she
is 17. Her friends burst out laughing. So does she. Widney looks
younger, and she has already been working the streets for three years.
What about AIDS? The laughter stops.
``No glove, no love,'' says Casandra, suddenly deadpan.
The poorest country in the Americas, Haiti also has the region's highest
incidence of HIV/AIDS, and children already robbed of innocence by
abject poverty enslaving 80 percent of the population are being
swallowed up by the scourge.
The virus is a leading cause of death in this impoverished Caribbean
nation, an economic basket case dependent on foreign handouts.
Local health groups estimate some 30,000 women work as prostitutes
across Haiti, the vast majority under the age of 24, and several
thousand of them under the age of 18.
The HIV/AIDS prevalence rate for the overall population is between 4.5
and 7.7 percent, considerably lower than in parts of Africa, but if
unchecked, potentially explosive.
``Every year 5,000 children are born HIV-infected. There are an
estimated 200,000 children orphaned by AIDS,'' said Luz Angela Melo,
child protection officer for the U.N. children's agency.
AIDS -- which surfaced over two decades ago and decimated the local
tourist industry -- is just one danger stalking Haiti's children. Around
1.2 million of them -- or around 15 percent of Haiti's total 8.1 million
population -- live in extremely vulnerable conditions.
Melo says Haiti's latest political crisis, which saw former President
Jean-Bertrand Aristide ousted in a bloody rebellion in February, has
undoubtedly plunged more children into severe hardship.
An estimated 2,000 children are trafficked into neighboring Dominican
Republic each year to work or beg, Melo said, while up to 300,000
children work as unpaid servants in Haiti, given up by parents who
cannot afford to feed them.
``Conditions are very hard. ... We need to help them in many, many ways,
but nothing will be enough. There are so many children,'' Melo said.
In central Port-au-Prince, hundreds of people flock each week to Haiti's
National Laboratory Research Institute for free AIDS and tuberculosis
Waiting rooms are packed. Mothers and their infants have blood samples
taken. Some patients, clearly very ill, lie crumpled against walls
waiting their turn.
Too weak to speak, emaciated Estelle Shibon, 22, her eyes sunken from
AIDS and tuberculosis, is carried out of the institute in the arms of a
relative. Her mother clutches a bag of medication the center doles out
Last year, the institute tested 21,000 people. Of those, around 20
percent tested positive for HIV/AIDS.
``One thing that we have noticed is that more and more adolescents are
coming here, mostly females, and we are trying to see why,'' said Dr.
Patrice Joseph, who works at the institute.
``There has been a 30 percent increase in people coming for HIV testing,
but we have seen a (slight) decrease in the number of people infected,''
Back at their street corner, Widney and her friends have no doubt they
have chosen the right line of work given Haiti's wider problems.
Charging anything from $7 to $28 per client, their earnings are
light-years ahead of around half of the population who make less than $1
``It's good money,'' Widney and Casandra chime together, running over to
talk to a potential client.