African business, politics and lifestyle
PHOTOBLOG: Children in Kenya and Haiti forced to grow up fast, if they survive
I had a flashback the other day when I was looking at photographs from Haiti of 15-year-old Fabianne Geismar, shot dead in the head after stealing wall hangings from a Port-au-Prince store, crushed in the Jan. 12 earthquake.
The image of Fabianne sprawled on the ground, blood trailing over the paintings she’d grabbed, took me back to my own childhood in Nairobi and the sight of a 7- or 8-year-old-boy – probably the same age as me at the time – who was caught stealing sweets from a street vendor and was beaten and burnt with rubber tyres. They called it mob justice.
To this day, I’ll never understand why that poor boy had to die such a violent and senseless death for something so trivial. I feel the same way about Fabianne – she survived one of the most catastrophic events in living memory, only to be shot in the head for petty theft. And for stealing wall hangings where there are no walls.
Fabianne’s childhood was brutally stolen from her and it got me thinking about how quickly so many young people in places like Africa, Asia and the Americas have to grow up, forced to fend for themselves through child labour or prostitution, denied an education and exposed to violence, disease and hunger at an age when they should be learning and playing.
Of the 2.2 billion children in the world, 1 billion live in poverty and experience violence annually, UNICEF figures show, meaning nearly half the children in the world don’t get to have childhoods. There are also an estimated 132 million orphans in the world, UNICEF says.
Children under 18 make up almost half of Haiti’s 9-million population and the country faces the highest rates of infant and child mortality in the Western hemisphere.
Officials fear thousands of children have been separated from their parents, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation by child traffickers, being illegally adopted by other countries or forced into child labour in order to survive. Around 150 million children worldwide aged 5–14 are engaged in child labour.
In Haiti, child labourers are called “restaveks” in Creole, meaning “to stay with”. Poor parents hand them over to wealthier families to work as domestic servants in exchange for shelter, food and education. But most often these children are treated as slaves, beaten, sexually abused and often denied access to education.
It’s no different in Kenya, where sexual exploitation of children continues unabated and if anything, is on the rise, as children are used in sex tourism or by locals who’d rather pay large amounts of money to sleep with them instead of older prostitutes.
Children caught up in violence or traumatic events face high risk of mental illness, suicidal tendencies and post-traumatic stress syndrome, researchers say. Robbed of their childhoods, many fall into a cycle of violence, crime, drugs, disease and unwanted pregnancy, and the spiral continues.
I spoke to the Reuters photographer in Haiti, Carlos Garcia Rawlins, who took the pictures of Fabianne to find out who shot her and why. He had no answers. By the time he got there she was already dead. She could have been shot by the police or armed security guards hired to protect property, he said. Witnesses said they didn’t know if she was targeted or hit by a stray bullet when police fired into the air to disperse a hungry mob.
What Rawlins did say is that people around her continued looting and would only stop for a moment to look at her body. “I couldn’t believe the indifference of the people around her,” he said.
On average, more than 24,000 children under five still die every day from largely preventable causes, UNICEF says. Haiti will inevitably add to that number.
The other day, I was watching a CNN reporter in Haiti who movingly described a death that could have been prevented if the proper medical care was provided. “It doesn’t have to happen,” he told viewers. “It’s really stupid. It’s infuriating. People died today who did not need to die.”
He couldn’t have put it better – Fabianne and that little boy from Kenya both died stupid deaths.