The slums that ring downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti, are some of the most impoverished on Earth, symbols of entrenched poverty, desperation, and despair.
For 19-year-old Manoucheka Lizaire, home is a dangerous place: “I don’t feel safe here because of violence and shootings all the time,” she says. “Rape and murder are very common, and people live in fear.”
After her mother died, Manoucheka was forced to drop out of school and fend for herself in the city. “My father could not afford to pay for school tuition,” she explains. “When my mother was alive, my life was much better. She struggled to take care of us and was working very hard to help me. When she died, my life changed completely.”
From dropout to vagrant to teen mother, Manoucheka’s life quickly unraveled as she followed a path familiar to girls living in poverty. In Haiti alone, thousands of teens are like Manoucheka—out of school and living on the streets, in domestic servitude, or with families too poor to provide them with an education. And as the economy continues to deteriorate, their ranks are growing fast; currently only two-thirds of 6 to 12 year olds are enrolled in school.
But Manoucheka has begun to find a way out. With her two-year-old daughter enrolled in school, she is participating in a youth empowerment program called IDEJEN. “My main motivation to come to this center came from the belief that I could learn technical skills and have basic education classes,” she says.
IDEJEN operates 12 youth centers in Haiti, each providing 50 teens with an education in basic reading, writing, and mathematics. Manoucheka and her peers also receive lessons in health, sexuality, nutrition, conflict resolution, and other life skills. In addition, they learn a marketable trade, such as sewing, woodworking, auto mechanics, and hotel services. IDEJEN centers also offer these destitute teens one hot meal a day, access to health care, and a place to belong.
“We start where the young people are,” says Melanie Beauvy, associate director for youth involvement and IDEJEN program manager. “For instance, we don’t rely on textbooks to teach literacy—we use magazines and newspapers instead. In mathematics, we use real scenarios—many of these kids need to handle money on the street, so we start there.” In addition, center staff work with a psychologist to learn about the emotional challenges that out-of-school youth face and how best to reach these youth.
Staff members hope the teens will find productive work and begin to build stable lives, but few have illusions about the hard realities of their world. “If these young people don’t see a way to improve their lives, they won’t stick around,” explains Beauvy.
Now that Manoucheka has finished the basic education and life-skills portion of the program, she has begun an internship at a food market where she also receives mentoring on business skills. When she finishes the program, she plans to get a job at a supermarket. Ultimately, she hopes to earn enough money to start her own business so she can become an employer for other young people like herself.
Originally published on May 15, 2007