Background on the Haitian Earthquake

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Key findings of the global Child Protection Working Group (CPWG) learning and support mission to Haiti

Background on the Haitian Earthquake

On January 12, 2010, a 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti; with the epi-centre in the impoverished and densely inhabited capital, Port-au-Prince, it caused large scale and widespread damages. Upwards of 200,000 people were killed and more than 300,000 injured. Over 1.5 million people were affected and displaced from their homes. Children and youth represent more than half of the population affected by the disaster.

All children in the affected areas had their lives disrupted and their daily routine, including their ability to go to school, shattered. The effects of the earthquake on children, their caregivers and communities will continue for months and years during the extended process of recovery, reconstruction and restoration. Separated and unaccompanied children and those who were orphaned are particularly vulnerable to the psychosocial impact of the disaster, to illness and under-nutrition, to abduction, trafficking and sexual abuse and violence. Similarly the very young are at risk of under-nutrition and prolonged psychosocial problems, including regressive behaviour, social withdrawal and increased anxiety. This is a particular problem, as children’s reactions to a situation often mirror their parents and care-givers have also been profoundly impacted by the disaster.

Within days, there was a mass exodus from the city as people fled their destroyed and even undamaged homes fearing aftershocks. Many returned to their rural areas of origin, while others established makeshift camps around Port au Prince. The arrival of large numbers of displaced children and adults in other parts of the country unquestionably placed a major strain on services, host families and communities. The camps where many IDPs sheltered in the days after the earthquake were overcrowded and often lacked basic services. Months later, vulnerability to new emergencies is extremely high; the rainy season has started and hurricanes typically remain a threat through November.

The humanitarian response to the earthquake was sizeable. In addition to the many organizations already working in Haiti, hundreds of registered and unregistered individuals and groups flooded into the country in the initial month to work with the affected populations. International media coverage generated significant private and public funds and heightened expectations and concerns about the plight of Haiti’s girls and boys. In addition, it led to close public scrutiny of child protection interventions – or lack of interventions, and kept the spotlight on child protection for much longer than in usual emergency responses. Demand for immediate solutions to children’s protection problems was intense.

Background on Child Protection Issues in Haiti prior to the Earthquake i

For the past 50 years, Haiti has been experiencing a situation of increasingly extreme poverty. It is the poorest and most densely populated country in the Western hemisphere. Prior to the 12th of January 2010, four in ten children lived in absolute poverty, and seven out of ten experienced at least one form of deprivation (food, health, education, water, sanitation, shelter, information). One in seven children died by the age of 7; 22% of under 5s suffered malnutrition;and 46% of girls and women were victims of sexual violence.

Indeed, a proportion of Haitian children have always suffered from a severe under-fulfillment of their rights: victims of trafficking, child slaves or restaveksii, survivors of sexual violence and exploitation, orphans and children without parental care, those living with special needs, and children in the judicial system. Before the earthquake, around 200,000 children were living with disabilities and now many more have been injured,iii while approximately half a million children were living in the streets or in orphanages.iv

2007 saw the launch of the National Plan for the Protection of Vulnerable Children, developed by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour (MoSAL), supported by UNICEF, which built on the earlier establishment of the Minor Protection Brigade (BPM in French) hosted within the National Police of Haiti. Many national stakeholders believe that MOSAL could play a much stronger role in the protection of children at risk, in facilitating their recovery and transfer to the competent authority, at least in the metropolitan area of Port-au-Prince. In 2004, the UN Peace-Keeping Force MINUSTAH was deployed; its mandate includes engaging in child protection issues, such as trafficking and sexual exploitation, and it has trained national counterparts and created a reporting mechanism in every province on grave child rights violations.v

Despite some small advances, the actual state of children’s rights in Haiti was low prior to the earthquake. Rule of law was seldom applied and a large proportion of children were exposed to different types of violence, including in schools, in the communities and within their own families. With many child protection issues remaining unaddressed prior to the earthquake, there is great concern about how the disaster has exacerbated the situation for children. However, with increased focus and funding directed to Haiti, there is also an opportunity to ensure that the root causes of child protection issues are addressed in recovery and development plans.

Aims, methodology and scope of the learning and support mission


The aims of the learning and support mission (herein referred to as “the review”), as agreed between the global CPWG and the Haiti child protection sub cluster, were to:

  • document lessons learned and promising practice in the first 3 months of the emergency related to effective and efficient child protection coordination under the cluster approach;

  • document lessons learned and promising practice in the first 3 months of the emergency related to the collective response to separated and unaccompanied children (including registration, family tracing and reunification, interim care, responses to trafficking, and prevention);

  • define possible ways in which the CPWG and its membership can best support the interagency CP response in Haiti.

Above all, this was seen as an opportunity to draw out lessons from a large, high profile emergency at an early stage, which would enable not just the export of those lessons to other contexts, but adjustments and improvements at both the field and global level, which might also be helpful for those involved in and supporting the Haiti Child Protection response.

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