Mental, Emotional Toll of COVID-19 on Haitian Teen Girls and Young Women

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Didi Bertrand Farmer (center), who leads the Women and Girls Initiative, has helped serve more than 600 marginalized and disadvantaged young women and adolescent girls in Haiti and Rwanda since 2008. (Photo by Nadia Todres)

The Women and Girls Initiative (WGI) promotes adolescent girls’ social protection, empowerment, and leadership. Under the hospices of Partners in Health, WGI has worked to empower the most marginalized and disadvantaged adolescent girls and young women in Rwanda and Haiti through scholarships, youth resource centers, and summer leadership academies. Since 2008, it has served over 600 beneficiaries aged 10 to 24years old in both countries

The below essay was written by Didi Bertrand Farmer, who leads WGI and is PIH’s senior adviser on community health and strategist for adolescent youth’s health, gender, and development.

“I’m mentally exhausted by fear, stress, and anxiety as days pass by and the cases rise. It’s a matter of days before my mother or myself contract this thing, since we have to go to the streets every day to keep our family going.”

These are the words of Sabrina, a beneficiary of the Women and Girls Initiative (WGI). She is a second year college student majoring in management, but her studies have been put on hold as universities shuttered in response to the coronavirus’s arrival in Haiti.

Motivated to succeed prior to the COVID-19 era, Sabrina can be found now selling street food with her mother in the Aviation suburb of the capital of Port-au-Prince. Like Sabrina, all the 80 girls and 52 families WGI serves work in the informal economy as Ti-Machan-an (street vendors), day laborers, and maids. They live under the poverty line of less than $2 USD per day. Their limited income impedes savings and, without access to social welfare and a safety net, they cannot abide by quarantine or travel restrictions and, therefore, face tremendous hardships to survive during this pandemic.

COVID-19’s Impact in Haiti

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to tear through Haiti, with about 70 new cases per day, its mental and emotional impact on women and girls worsens every day. As of June 1, the country had already registered 2,124 confirmed cases with estimates approaching 400,000 cases countrywide by August, according to the Haitian Health Taskforce.

With schools and universities shutting down and families’ financial conditions worsening, adolescent girls and young women from our program report greater levels of grief, fear, stress, anxiety, and even hopelessness during the country lockdown. Some girls feel beaten down by their family’s constant struggle; others express fear that their parents might contract the virus and lose their already fragile livelihoods. Many are tired and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of responsibilities falling on their shoulders.

They are all deeply concerned about their education, their only ticket out for a better future for themselves, their families, and their communities.

In addition to the constant insecurity due to gang violence in their neighbourhoods, they are all deeply concerned about their education, their only ticket out for a better future for themselves, their families, and their communities. This pandemic took away the already faint hope of finishing the 2019-2020 academic year, a hope that appeared in January and was previously compromised by political turmoil, street riots, gang violence, and a total countrywide lockdown started in September 2019.

Less than 30 percent of our girls has access to a smartphone with internet connection that could facilitate potential distance learning and social connections for peer-to-peer support during this hard time. However, access to electricity to charge their device presents another challenge, with less than three hours of city power distributed per week. These constant disruptions affect their hope and aspirations for a better future for themselves and their communities.

Burden of Household Responsibilities

Our adolescent girls and young women say their day-to-day lives are now filled with sharing the high burden of household chores and responsibilities with their mothers or other women in their households. Stuck at home due to the country lockdown, they feel intense pressure to assist or carry out unending domestic work, like house tidying, fetching water, cooking, handwashing clothes, and caring for younger siblings, sick elderly parents, or other family members.

Our girls are daughters in families led by single mothers or guests in families hosting them near their schools. They provide free and unlimited manpower to upper-class Haitian households, where their mothers work as live-in maids, or to their host families in compensation for housing and food. Others take full responsibility for running the family’s street vending business by selling basic goods or cooking when their mothers are sick, putting them at risk of not only contracting the virus, but being victim to gang violence.

The volume of these duties decreased when attending school daily, but have returned in full force. Countrywide lockdowns also took away their social networks at school and at church, so they feel even further isolated.

Our girls also reported an increase in physical and psychological abuse from parents and relatives due to the tremendous pressure and hardship that everyone is under. They live in crowded homes where resources are limited, which makes it practically impossible to adhere to COVID-19 preventative measures, namely good hygiene practices and physical distancing. Families have to choose between washing their hands or saving the water for cooking and drinking. Such conditions thus provoke mood swings, cycles of tension, and anger issues.

“Everyone is on Edge”

Our girls are experiencing distress and a general feeling of helplessness facing these chronic conditions and COVID-19-related changes in their lives. Melanie, a 17-year-old high school student living in Port-au-Prince, puts it this way: “Living in these conditions with no personal space, it’s like [being] in prison at home. Everyone is on edge.”

The mental and emotional strains resulting from the coronavirus pandemic are invisible wounds that impact the health and well-being of adolescent girls and young women in Haiti. Mental health has always been a major public health issue facing the country, but it’s more important now than ever before that adequate psychological support and counseling programs are made available to support this special group with their specific mental health needs.

For their part, Sabrina and Melanie enjoy participating in WGI’s Health and Wellness program, comprised of weekly activities that include guided meditations in Haitian Creole, yoga, drawing, journaling, and short story writing, among other exercises. These activities aim to help them cope with stress and anxiety.

Together, we are working to ensure our adolescent girls and young women remain engaged and hopeful for their better, brighter future in Haiti.

Article originally posted on pih.org

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