Haitians need aid and face ‘staggering levels’ of gender violence, UN children’s chief says

Jun 29, 2023, 9:45 PM | Updated: Jun 30, 2023, 3:36 am

People displaced by gang violence stand in Jean-Kere Almicar's front yard, where they have sought r...

People displaced by gang violence stand in Jean-Kere Almicar's front yard, where they have sought refuge, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday, June 4, 2023. Nearly 200 people who once lived in the Cite Soleil slum near Almicar’s house are now camped out in his front yard and nearby areas. They are among the nearly 165,000 Haitians who have fled their homes amid a surge in gang violence. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

(AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Close to half of Haiti’s people, 2.2 million adults and 3 million children, need humanitarian aid and thousands of youngsters face “staggering levels” of gender-based violence, the head of the U.N. children’s agency said Thursday.

“Haitians and our team, they’re telling me it’s never been worse than it is now — unprecedented hunger and malnutrition, grinding poverty, a crippled economy, resurgence of cholera, and a massive insecurity that creates a deadly downward spiral of violence,” said Catherine Russell, the executive director of UNICEF.

Russell said what was clear during her just-completed visit was that the police don’t have the capacity to secure the country and protect the population from violent gangs and “something needs to change.”

“We have to, as an international community, say we can’t watch this country completely fall apart,” she said. “And so my job is to try to bring some attention to that problem and to make sure people understand how terrible the humanitarian crisis is, what kind of impact that’s having on children.”

Russell repeated at a news conference some of the stories she heard at a center for survivors of gender-based violence in a dangerous part of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

An 11-year-old girl who was eight months pregnant recounted how five men had grabbed her on the street and raped her, Russell said. The girl gave birth days after their talk, she said.

Also at the center, Russell heard from a woman who described how men barged into her home and raped her. And when her 20-year-old sister resisted, they killed her by setting her on fire and then burned down the house.

“I was told this is part of a new strategy by the armed groups — they rape girls and women and they burn their homes to make them more vulnerable and more easily controlled,” Russell said.

Russell spoke a day after William O’Neill, who was appointed in April by the U.N. human rights chief as the U.N. expert on Haiti, said at the end of a 10-day visit to the beleaguered Caribbean nation that a specialized international force is needed to fight gang violence and that a weapons embargo should be implemented immediately.

“I found a country bruised by violence, misery, fear and suffering,” O’Neill said Wednesday, adding that all types of human rights are being violated. “It is urgent to take action. The survival of an entire nation is at stake.”

An understaffed and under-resourced police department has been struggling to fight against warring gangs that have grown more powerful since the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. The violence has led to an increase in starvation, with people unable to leave their homes and trucks unable to deliver goods.

The surge in killings, rapes and kidnappings has led to violent reprisals, with civilians killing nearly 200 people since April in attacks on suspected gang members.

Since October, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been urging the immediate deployment of an international armed force to stem the gang violence and Haiti’s worst human rights crisis in decades. He warned in April that insecurity in the capital “has reached levels comparable to countries in armed conflict.”

Neither the United States, which has been criticized for previous interventions in Haiti, nor Canada have shown any interest in leading such a force. The international community has instead opted to impose sanctions and send military equipment and other resources.

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Haitians need aid and face ‘staggering levels’ of gender violence, UN children’s chief says