By Verlande Cadet, Haiti Liberté, May 31, 2023
When school reopened for Esther Paul’s three children in January, it was a much-needed moment of relief for the single mother, who had been home alone with her children for six months. But it also posed a problem.
“Last year, the price of three-wheeled motorcycles was 50 [Haitian] gourdes [33 cents],” she says, referring to the cost of getting her children to school. “This year, the price has doubled. Who knows if next year the price will not be raised again.”
Paul can no longer afford to transport her children to school and now walks an hour each day to get them there and back. Some days, the journey is too much for her two youngest children, aged 3 and 4.
“I have to hurry every day so that I am not late — otherwise the children will be punished,” Paul says. “This is not easy for me because my youngest two children are too small to walk very fast. When time is short, my oldest daughter helps me carry the children on my back.”
Last September, the government announced the end of $400 million in gas subsidies. Fuel prices doubled, sparking demonstrations, some violent, as the country grapples with a deepening economic crisis. An armed group also blocked access to the main Varreux terminal, where most of the country’s fuel imports arrive, and demanded Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s resignation. Schools and businesses closed, and protesters blocked roads. But while Cap-Haïtien children can now attend classes after a six-month hiatus in some areas, the fuel crisis has left many parents struggling to get their children to school.
In August, Mirlande Bolivard had already paid part of her children’s private school fees when the government announced its decision to postpone school openings after the summer break. The Ministry of National Education and Professional Training announced the one-month postponement, without a reason, just days before the expected Sep. 5 start date. Yet schools didn’t start to reopen in Cap-Haïtien until December, and all children eventually returned to classes by January. When Bolivard’s children, aged 10 and 12, returned to the classroom, school officials requested that students not wear their uniforms for fear that they would be targeted by protesters angry that schools were resuming when their demands had not been met.
Bolivard says her husband drives their children to school, but she relies on a motorbike taxi to bring them home. This costs her 500 gourdes ($3.33) a day.
“I struggle to earn a sufficient income from my business because of the country’s instability,” says Bolivard, who opened an events and catering business in 2022 after resigning from her bank job to stay home with her youngest child. “As for my husband, he faces challenges working as a lawyer in a city where instability also cripples the justice system.”
Police regained control of the Varreux fuel terminal in November, but gas stations in the country’s second-largest city remain largely empty, leaving most residents only able to buy fuel on the black market at an initial cost of 1,500 gourdes ($10) a gallon, a cost which has recently dropped to around 1,000 gourdes ($6.45) a gallon.
On top of rising transport costs, there are fewer motorbike taxis available for hire, making it difficult for people to get around, even if they can pay the fare.
Duderot François, who used to drive a three-wheeled motorbike taxi, a specific mode of public transport that has fixed routes and can carry up to five passengers, was forced to stop working after fuel prices escalated. He says that while the black-market price for fuel has halved this year as supply trickles in, fuel is still too expensive and scarce for him to make any kind of living. He has witnessed many fights over gas at the pumps.
“It was very difficult to get gas because there would always be lots of people queuing and others fighting,” François says. “Sometimes, I would spend the whole day waiting for gas, and the station would close before I could buy any.”
François says gas has not reached the station in his area, so unless he has the money to pay for it on the black market, he has no access to fuel.
While it’s taking time for fuel to reach the pumps in northern Haiti, the area was also slow to reopen schools. In December, Education Minister Nesmy Manigat reported that more than 50% of schools were open in eight out of Haiti’s 10 departments. In the Northern department, where Cap-Haïtien is located, only 17% of schools were open, while in the Northeast, it was 27%. All schools have since reopened in the northern coastal city, and all children are attending in uniform, says Marie-Carmelle Cothière, educational directorate of the Northern department, but access to education as well as the learning children have missed still concern some.
Steevelyne Pierre, a child psychologist at the Collège le Phare in Cap-Haïtien, says not attending school for a long period of time could negatively affect children’s intellectual development and mental well-being, especially if they are not intellectually stimulated at home. She says that children are likely to forget a lot of the topics learned in school.
“The lack of access to education has been an issue for years, and the closure of schools only made the situation worse,” Pierre says.
Bolivard is relieved her children can continue their education, but she must make sacrifices to afford transportation — at a time when she has no steady income and her husband’s profits are dwindling. Only if fuel becomes more available does she expect her situation to improve.
Paul is also willing to make the sacrifice each day for the sake of her children’s education. After walking and often carrying her children to class, she spends the day working at their school, looking after the youngest students. She has accepted this grueling journey but holds no hope that transportation costs will come down.
“Honestly, I don’t think it will change,” she says, “especially with the instability in the country.”
Posted June 6, 2023