Global Health, Public health concern, Social Issue

On the shades of violence in Haiti

When we first moved to our current neighbourhood ten years ago, the sides of our impasse was occupied by poorly maintained shrubs and houses isolated from each other. Only one car could manage to go through a narrow path left between the trees. Acquaintances often quipped about us living in such a remote place, hardly accessible and sometimes dangerous, given the numerous cases of kidnapping that had occurred there in the past. Indeed, the main avenue was not even fully concreted and huge potholes spread along the road. But ever since the earthquake hit, people from diverse and unknown backgrounds have settled on unfenced lands nearby, slowly changing the settings. Retail sale of clairin, a popular alcoholic cocktail, has flourished since then and round the clock gambling also attracts many young unemployed. Gun related and gender specific violence were quickly added to the picture, outlined by injuries, addiction and mental health issues.

Over time, we got used to the times when drunken men cause inconvenience and to the days when quarrels over money or marriage issues block access to our home. But as an extreme example of how unchecked violence has spread, three young men were recently found dead on the streets, killed by heavy gunfire heard during the night. Surprisingly when it comes to violence, young people seem to be the most vulnerable. Violence claims the lives of 200,000 young people per year worldwide and represents the 7th cause of death in Haiti.

The disastrous political context of the country during the last decades has shaped the minds towards believing that violence is inevitable. Not only have people engaged in violent acts for the smallest rewards, but many accustomed to political turmoil think of violence as a substantial part of their daily life. The general public and the policy makers consider violence more as a banal indicator or trend, going up and down but never as an issue plaguing their own personal and community health. In our communities, the trivialization of violence is in fact, the result of inaction which results in more violence, repeating a vicious cycle and accumulating into increased cases of serious injury, chronic diseases and perhaps lowered life expectancy.

The popular culture has long encouraged violence against women through apologies of machismo and the objectification of women. It goes without saying that despite women’s rights activists’ campaigns, they remain the largest target of verbal and physical violence. Misogynistic words being too often valued and praised, they somehow abound in the media, accompanied by degrading images of women and hateful mocks. Even in my youngest years growing in Cap Haitian, the tendency to disregard women and LGBT communities’ values had already been deeply rooted in most boys my age. So it was not surprising that, as a medical intern in Cap-Haitian decades later, I couldn’t keep count of the cases of gender-related violence registered in the emergency service. There were even cases where serious burns were the consequence of such domestic violence.

Besides the factors mentioned above, structural violence seems an even more important cause of physical violence. The lack of education, unemployment, social and economic inequalities, exclusion, gender-based, racial or religious discrimination and poverty among other factors stand as complex mechanisms preventing many people from defining and fully realizing themselves. In the countryside, the absence of an efficient mean to uphold justice leaves enough space for violent conflicts over land tenure, often leading to deaths. Although there are no excuses to violence, it is rooted in a highly unequal society, which leaves very little opportunities through decent jobs and an environment to realize one’s potentials. As a matter of fact, the World Health Organization referred to concentrated poverty, easy access to alcohol, drugs and guns and weak governance as main risk factors for youth violence. And as far as we know, the daily lives of most occupants of cluttered neighborhoods in Haiti consist of much of these factors.

Although the population may rejoice in the brutal murder of robbers, these acts may not be more than a Band-Aid on a deep wound, if the core problems remain unaddressed. Perhaps it would be useful to keep engaging all communities proactively in order to expel the idea that violence is normal and inevitable in Haiti. Communication should counter the idea that the situation is acceptable today simply because it was worse 12 years ago, because no level of violence is suitable. It will be mandatory, to teach or keep reminding our communities the fact that women are equal to men both in their body and their mind. School children should be taught that violence makes orphans and leads to many health consequences. If young people are offered the opportunity to play a role in their country’s path to development, if they are able to support their families with dignity and respect for others’ property, it will certainly make a difference and that is definitely a worthy investment for the future.

Cluttered neighborhood

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