Ending endemic violence through education in Cité Soleil

How to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for children growing up in a violent slum? An innovative project in Haiti faces big challenges.

Around 80 per cent of schools in Haiti are privately run, and the good ones too expensive for children from poor areas like Cité Soleil (Photo: Breezy Baldwiin, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Cité Soleil, the largest slum in Haiti, is a lawless place. Armed gangs openly rule the area. Yet amid all this, there are efforts to try to change attitudes and the image of the area through education. 

As governments look to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including the goals to ensure access to education, to deliver employment, and to reduce inequality, the lessons provided by efforts in areas such as Cité Soleil need to be considered.  

For a stranger, a visit to Cité Soleil can be shocking. Frequent armed fights between rival gangs turn the slum into chaos. Even the police station keeps its gates closed most of the time and you rarely see police on the streets. Other bodies are equally absent – with just the United Nations mission (MINUSTAH) remaining. Sometimes staff from the mission clear the canals to prevent the slum from flooding in the rains.

Achieving the SDGs for the 300,000 people who live in Cité Soleil is a challenge almost beyond comprehension. Haiti is one of the world's most unequal countries and the community here is among the poorest in Haiti – a country where half the population lives on less than US $1 a day.

Access to education is a crucial element in any attempt to tackle inequality here, but according to World Bank figures, more than 200,000 children remain out of school.

Determined to make a difference

Against this difficult backdrop, Isaac Norway and four friends set out to try and make a difference. They established the Réseau des jeunes engagés pour la protection réelle de l’environnement’ (RAJEPRE) – a network for young people protecting the environment – to prevent children from following the path to violence. They also opened the Center for Education and Training of Young People to provide education for disadvantaged children in Bois Neuf area of Cité Soleil.

They started with some 60 to 70 students. There are currently some 130. Norway, now aged 36, heads the centre. One of the other founders runs RAJEPRE and the others help out with fundraising.

Cité Soleil was not a high risk area when Norway migrated to Port-au-Prince in 1994 to continue his own studies. But the political unrest that led to the departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power in 2004, transformed the area into a battlefield. 

"Young people who remained here were forced to take up arms", says Isaac. "Gang leaders asked students and schoolchildren to evacuate the neighbourhood to avoid being caught in the crossfire."

By the end of the conflict in 2006, the neighbourhood had been devastated. Many children were left orphaned, while surviving parents struggled to pay to send their children to school.

Depending on goodwill

"It was not easy at the beginning," Norway explained. "We opened the school in a small house. All of the teachers were volunteers."

It was only years later, in 2011, when the Haitian government introduced a universal, compulsory education programme that the school was able to pay salaries. But even now, payment is unreliable and teachers have not been paid for the last five months. One teacher took Norway to court for failing to pay her salary.

About 80 per cent of the schools in Haiti are privately run and the good ones are too expensive for children from Cité Soleil. The government pays some fees for disadvantaged children to attend Norway's school, but other students must find some $40 a year – far less than the average cost in Haiti of $130 a year. 

Norway applauds the courage of the teachers who persevere at the school, despite the difficulties. Students often come to class without eating anything, so cannot concentrate. The school tries to provide a hot meal every day to prevent this, but finding resources is a struggle. 

Building opportunities

Another challenge is the lack of opportunities for children once they have completed the  basic programme. "Some of them wander the streets," Norway says. "They have no alternative. It's even harder for the girls who often become pregnant and are unable to continue their studies."

Meanwhile the threat of gang violence remains. Norway would like to build a wall to secure the students in case conflicts between rival gangs erupt. 

Norway's dream is to open a vocational section to give children in the area practical skills after they leave school.

Recent support from the Pan American development fund (PADF) has allowed the school to build five classrooms, but otherwise the school depends on donations from friends.

Learning the lessons

The significance of inequality cannot be over-estimated in implementing the SDGs. In Haiti, children from a slum like Cité Soleil do not stand a chance of achieving access to education – and the potential that education offers – without intervention on a significant scale.  

While courageous individuals like Norway will make a difference to some young people, the problem demands action on a bigger scale. To achieve "inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all" (SDG4), programmes must be devised that factor in the environment within which such children live. Education also plays a part in goals on health, growth and employment. 

For these goals to succeed, actors like Norway must be put at the heart of development. Their commitment to change their society and the unlimited knowledge and access to such hard to reach communities must be harnessed. Public finance for private schools is essential for children in neighbourhoods such as Bois Neuf if inequality is to be bridged.

Jean Pharès Jérôme (pharo152002@yahoo.fr) has been a staff writer at Haiti's daily newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, since 2006. He reports on Haitian politics, economics and development issues. He is a member of the newspaper's editorial team and teaches journalism at the University of Haiti. On 13 June, a dialogue event will discuss how the SDGs present challenges and opportunities for the LDCs.