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17109: Lakata: Haiti's First Lady addresses 12th annual First Ladies' Conference (fwd)
Mildred T. Aristide
First Lady of the Republic of Haiti
XII CONFERENCE OF FIRST LADIES,
SPOUSES AND REPRESENTATIVES OF HEADS OF STATE AND
GOVERNMENT OF THE AMERICAS
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
October 16, 2003
Your Excellency, Madame Rosa Gomez de Mejía, First Lady of the Dominican
Republic and host of this year’s twelfth annual conference of First Ladies,
Spouses and Representatives of Heads of State and Government of the Americas; fellow
First Ladies; conference participants.
I join Mrs. Mejía in welcoming you to this dear island that our two nations
share. An island that both President Mejía and President Aristide have aptly
called the two wings of a single bird. I share Mrs. Mejía’s enthusiasm in
hosting this important conference here in the Dominican Republic to address some of
the pressing issues facing the youth of the Americas.
The State of the World Population 2003 Report tells us that nearly half of
all people are under the age of 25. This is the largest youth generation in
history. 1.2 billion adolescents are preparing to enter adulthood in a rapidly
changing world. How we in the Americas equip our youths to face this changing
world will certainly determine the future of our country, region, and world.
This year we have chosen to drop anchor in the densely rich and vast domain
of education. Education is first and foremost the required road map for
navigating this new changing world. I follow the lead of my fellow First Ladies in
giving education its broadest definition to examine how in my country, Haiti,
education has and can further strengthen families, promote democratic values,
respect of differences, promote youth voluntarism and create spaces for debate.
In 1988 when my husband President Aristide was still a parish priest he
created a center for street children call Lafanmi Selavi -- family is life -- indeed
that is what we affirm today in this conference.
We’ve all heard the sombering numbers before; globally, some 115 million
children currently do not attend primary school. Poverty of course is a major
factor. In Latin America and the Caribbean alone, 15 million young people live in
extreme poverty. And the State of the World Population 2003 Report finds that
youth poverty correlates closely with national indebtedness.
These numbers and casual factors are reflective of the reality in Haiti. Only
approximately 55 percent of Haiti’s school-aged population is enrolled in
school, and many of these children are over-aged for their class. Haiti’s
Constitution, its national laws, all stipulate that education be mandatory and free,
but 200 years after our independence that is not yet the reality for all of
Haiti’s children. The reasons run deep in our history. For years following
Haiti’s payment of the first installment of an onerous debt of independence to our
former colonizer France, no public schools were opened while the population
grew, and it would take another 20 years for the first school in the rural
countryside to be created. The cycle of indebtedness triggered by this early debt
coupled with undemocratic rule for much of Haiti’s past history has deprived
many generations of youths of a proper education.
Today, with a leitmotiv of investing in people, education is a top priority.
This government has promoted school construction and renovation programs in
densely populated urban areas as well as in some of the remotest parts of the
country. For the first time public high school students are logging on to the
world wide web. School lunch programs are expanding across the country.
But these programs must be multiplied. In the case of Haiti it is not
political will that is lacking. Rather, Haiti has been wrongly denied access to
needed funds. Promised education loans from the InterAmerican Development Bank,
long unjustly withheld, must be released now so that the education of our youth
can go forward.
An initiative announced by the government last June addresses a very harsh
reality faced by a large number of Haitian children and youth -- child domestic
service, the practice of placing children, mostly from the rural countryside,
in the domestic service of urban families. A practice known commonly in Haiti
as restavek. Under-education in Haiti is a root cause of this practice. An
overwhelming numbers of children are placed in families with the hope that they
will have access to education. Too often they do not. This year President
Aristide announced special school subsidies for these children, the extension of
afternoon sessions for children who work, and has encouraged host families to
enroll school children who are in their care. In addition to these education
measures, the Haitian parliament took the important step of repealing a highly
controversial 56-year old law sanctioning domestic labor for children as young
as 12 years old.
Now Haiti must invest to reverse country conditions that propagate child
domestic service. The work most frequently relegated to children -- girls in
particular -- is hauling water. Often, very long distances in heavy plastic jugs
balanced on top of their heads. Again, we ask the InterAmerican Development Bank
to hasten its review of a potable water project for Haiti that will increase
access to clean water for all Haitians and promote school enrollment.
Beyond the importance of education in tooling children with productive work
skills, education is a tool in promoting democratic values. This year is a
special year for all Haitians. On January 1, 2004, we will celebrate Haiti’s
bicentennial anniversary as the first free and independent Black republic to issue
from a successful slave revolt. We are an old republic with a young
population. This is an important opportunity to reaffirm with our youth the democratic
values that inspired our founding fathers and mothers and laid the foundation
to the Haitian revolution -- liberty, equality and fraternity.
Today as Haiti traverses a challenging apprenticeship of democratic
governance that is only 12 years old, burdened by 200 years of impoverization, Haiti
casts aside a legacy of violent coup d’etats and dictatorial rule to move
forward. The democratic values that Haiti now embraces allows for a public space for
debate, tolerance and the respect of all human rights.
The airwaves of the dozens of radio stations that emerged thanks to the
restoration of democracy to Haiti in 1994, can serve as a virtual national
classroom. Messages that call for peace, that teach tolerance and that call for the
adherence to the democratic process are those which the Haitian people choose to
Haitian youths have answered the rallying call of Article 32.9 of our
Constitution which asks that all citizens, from both the public and private sectors,
the media, to promote efforts to strengthen literacy initiatives in Haiti. In
September 2001, President Aristide launched a national literacy campaign to
reduce an intolerable illiteracy rate of upward of 60 percent. Haiti recognizes
that it is an imperative duty of every citizen to participate in this most
important national campaign.
In addition to illiteracy, perhaps the greatest crisis facing youth in Haiti
and in the world, is the AIDS pandemic. And here too education must play an
important role. Every 14 seconds a young person between the ages of 15 and 24 is
infected with the HIV virus. Young people and youths now account for half of
all new cases of the disease. The disease has orphaned 13 million children
under the age of 15. In Haiti too we have seen the juvenilization of AIDS. Haiti
has over 300,000 people living with AIDS, over 20,000 children orphaned by
AIDS and the highest HIV infection rate in the Western Hemisphere.
While it is clear that poverty is a co-factor to AIDS and that prevention
efforts alone will not stem the tide of AIDS, more must be done to educate our
youth on AIDS prevention.
Since we met at our last conference in Mexico, I am happy to report that
Haiti has progressed in its fight against AIDS. A two-year $24.7 million project
financed by the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is
being implemented today. The goal of the Global Fund project is that set forth in
the National Strategic Plan Against AIDS: to empower sexually active Haitians
to make informed choices and to adopt behaviors that protect their health,
reduce their risk and vulnerability to HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted
diseases, and contribute to the elimination of stigmatization of, and
discrimination against, those infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS. The Haitian model
is one of integrated prevention and care.
The global Fund project involves 17 partners -- public and private
organizations working side by side against the dreaded disease. Although Haiti has
greatly multiplied the number of people living with AIDS receiving treatment, we
are still very far from attaining our goal. More resources are needed. More must
be done because everyone has the right to live.
History teaches us that in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries, Haiti and the colonial model was a showcase of wealth generated for a
privileged minority at the expense of millions of African and Indian lives. In 1804
Haiti became a beacon of liberty for this island and this region of the
Americas. Haiti taught the world the true meaning of the words: in unity there is
strength. Today on the eve of Haiti’s bicentennial, Haiti, indeed the Americas,
must be the battleground for a different fight -- the fight against poverty,
AIDS, hunger, homelessness, racism, violence and undereducation -- the modern
day challenges that have replaced slavery as the great evils of our day.
Promoting and strengthening families is a most important step in this fight.
Thank you very much.