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New beginnings for Haiti and its orphans

Preliminary results from Haiti’s presidential election have just been announced which indicate that musician Michel Martelly has won a majority of votes, defeating former first lady Mirlande Manigat.

Final confirmation is not expected until mid-April, but the announcement suggests Haitians have voted for a candidate who represents a completely fresh start. Mr Martelly has no political experience and campaigned on a message of reform and new beginning.

Haiti still faces huge challenges to rebuild following the devastating earthquake in January 2010. Hundreds of thousands are still living in tented camps where life is hard and precarious. Conditions around the camps are often squalid and as heavy rains return, charities are concerned about fresh outbreaks of cholera. Staff from Plan International report that in some areas, mortality rates from the disease are as high as 8 per cent and with the cyclone season approaching, the situation is expected to worsen as the numbers of infected rise following a decline during the dry season. According to the Ministry of Health, nearly 270,000 people have been infected with cholera since last November and the death toll is over 4,700.

Agencies working in the country are also worried by the rising number of abandoned children. At the start of the year, the BBC reported that one orphanage on the outskirts of Port au Prince had seen its intake of children increase by nearly a third since the earthquake. This rise is not simply the result of children having lost their parents in the disaster, but the consequence of increasingly desperate women living in poverty, who decide to abandon their babies in streets and ditches. With a high number of reported rapes in the camps, many unwanted children are being conceived through violent assaults.

According to a report by the United Nations (UN) Population Fund, Haiti’s birth rate has tripled since the earthquake. Maternity units in hospitals and clinics are dealing with extremely high numbers of deliveries each month and staff are struggling to keep up. Their workload is also made more difficult by the number of mothers who are discharging themselves after giving birth and leaving their babies behind.

It is unclear exactly how many children have been abandoned over the past year, but some estimates put the figure at over 3,000; the total number of children who have been registered as having lost contact with their families since the earthquake is almost 5,000. And a spokesperson for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is concerned that many of these children are ending up in orphanages and homes which are not registered with local authorities, where the children are vulnerable to poor standards of care and nutrition, as well as to child abuse. Like the country itself, if abandoned children are not provided with a decent new beginning, prospects for the future will be grim.

Laurinda Luffman signature