March 1, 2017
JACMEL, HAITI — Rigaud St. Claire, 54, collects plastic bottles from the sewage drain system. He sells the bottles to a recycling plant so his children, ages 7, 9, 15 and 19, can attend school. St. Claire is illiterate. This is the only job he can find.
“My parents didn’t send me to school from an early age, and I’ve been caught in the claws of misery as a result,” he says.
School enrollment rates have gone up in recent years on this island nation, but fees, which are charged by most schools, remain a major barrier to entry for families, in particular those in which the parents did not receive a full education themselves.
Primary school enrollment is 75 percent, according to January 2016 estimates from the U.S. Agency for International Development, but the average Haitian age 25 or older has attended school for less than five years. USAID estimates that half of the adult population is illiterate.
USAID also reports that the vast majority — more than 85 percent — of all schools are privately managed, receive minimal government oversight and are expensive for ordinary Haitians.
Those aren’t the only problems, says Nobert Alix, who was a teacher for 19 years in both public and private schools. Schools abound even in rural areas, he says, but there’s a lack of experienced teachers.
And too many children don’t get an education at all, Alix says.
The Haitian government’s adoption of the global “Education for All” campaign, which was first organized in 1990 by UNESCO, the United Nations Development Programme, UNICEF and the World Bank, came out of a desire to motivate children and integrate them into schools. But many parents keep their children home, where they can help with household chores, Alix says.
Roselaure Charles, GPJ Haiti
Haiti has a long history of implementing child protection laws, which require parents to send their children to school, says Edgard Agella, a 25-year teaching veteran who is now assistant director for secondary education at the Ministère de l’Éducation Nationale et de la Formation Professionnelle, the national education ministry. At one point, he says, parents who did not send their children to school faced jail time.
But in recent years, especially since the fall of the brutal Jean-Claude Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, the government has struggled to enforce such laws, Agella says.
Children have a right to education under Haiti’s Constitution. But now, he says, the government can’t even afford to properly train the nation’s 120,000 primary and secondary schoolteachers, let alone ensure that each child attends school.
“There is a need for collective awakening of community members in our society before the government of Haiti focuses on the application of laws,” Agella says. “Otherwise, the same problems will repeat themselves time and time again. As a result, Haiti will face very high numbers of unemployment rates, with adult illiteracy rates reaching epidemic proportions, whereby the nation will find itself sunk into the pit of misery.”
St. Claire is determined that his children won’t share his fate. He spent his childhood in Jacmel, an idyllic southern port town, but his days were dedicated to helping his grandfather sell livestock. Later, he carried buckets of concrete and water at construction sites until his eyesight began to falter.
Now, he scavenges through sewage ditches to collect plastic bottles, knowing he could catch a serious disease doing so. For him, the lure of earning 50 Haitian gourdes (about 70 cents) by selling about 10 pounds of plastic is enough.
“This amount is too small to live on, but I have saved some percentage of it to afford to pay school fees for my kids,” he says.
It takes a lot of plastic to pay school fees for just one child. St. Claire’s oldest son, for example, needs 500 Haitian gourdes (about $7.30) for fees for one year, plus additional money to pay for his exam, his uniform and other expenses.
“I’ve taken on the job of collecting plastic bottles for seven years now, and my life has not really changed for the better,” St. Claire says. “However, I can tell you, and I am delighted to be able to do so, that I was able to afford to pay school fees for my kids.”
Roselaure Charles, GPJ, translated interviews from Haitian Creole.
Ndayaho Sylvestre, GPJ, translated this article from French.