inside Port-au-Prince’s ‘baby factory’
On the lip of this city’s worst slum, an unconventional factory is in the midst of an unprecedented boom.
Beneath fluorescent lights and above blood-splattered floors, at least 50 wriggling infants are born each day at Isaie Jeanty, Port-au-Prince’s only maternity hospital, better known these days as “the baby factory.”
One year after an earthquake devastated Haiti, the country has launched into a post-disaster baby boom. The birth rate has tripled in spite of the fact that the country is experiencing the most uncertainty its people have witnessed in decades.
As the anniversary of the quake approaches, officials here are struggling to identify bright spots from the past year; more than a million people remain in cramped camps that are morphing from temporary to long-term accommodations with no schools or job possibilities. This is particularly true in the urban capital, where conditions are growing ever more desperate. At this hospital, which is designed to handle difficult pregnancies, about 1,500 babies are now born each month.
While some families have deliberately started to rebuild after losing loved ones in the earthquake, the pregnancies are more commonly described as accidental, chalked up to desperate camp conditions that have made prostitution enticing and have enabled rapes.
On this morning, Isaie Jeanty’s halls are filled with the haunting moans of women in labour; few of them are happy about bringing children into such uncertain conditions.
Milla Charles, a 24-year-old, staggered through a hallway toward the showers in her blood-stained grey T-shirt, a dazed look on her face. Minutes later, she was sitting on a hospital bed with her yet-unnamed twins, wondering how she will take care of them when she has nothing more than a tent.
She was “not responsible” for getting pregnant, she explained, adding that the father “doesn’t care” to be involved in the situation, the magnitude of which instantly doubled when two babies came out instead of one.
Asked what their future might be like, Ms. Charles barely moved her lips. A few hours later, once her bleeding had stopped, Ms. Charles was discharged.
Tara Newell, a Canadian who runs the hospital for Doctors Without Borders, said women who cannot manage their babies – particularly if the newborn is sick or weak – often leave their children at the hospital. An entire wall in the neonatal unit is lined with orphans, including a set of twins whose young mother died during childbirth and whose extended family couldn’t manage with them in their tent; there is three-month-old Luis, ailing Job and tiny Moise, a month-old preemie no bigger than a robin, who was discarded by his mother.
In a tent outside for cholera victims – the only treatment centre here set up for pregnant sufferers – there are more orphans. A nameless boy barely bigger than Moise sleeps with his left hand splayed across his heart. His future is unclear. If, unlike his mother, he survives cholera, there will be no one to take him home.
Ms. Newell, who has been working here since last summer, said the hospital has also seen a notable rise in the number of young teens delivering in recent months.
“In the camps, people are confined. They have no jobs. There’s nothing to do,” she said, adding: “People have lost control of their children. You see a lot of young girls getting pregnant, which leads to the question of sexual violence.”
In reality, there is no question.
Grassroots women’s organizations monitoring sexual violence in Port-au-Prince’s camps have, with the help of Amnesty International, documented a marked escalation in the incidences of rape. The attacks typically happen at night, when aggressors slice their way into tents and tarp-covered hovels, or lurk in the shadows near latrines to grab women, many of whom are vulnerable because they lost their protectors – husband, brothers and fathers – to last year’s earthquake.
That’s what happened to 22-year-old Mirlande. She lost her entire family in the earthquake and has been sleeping in a borrowed bed on the Champs de Mars, a formerly public square between the city’s largest police station and the presidential palace now crowded with tents.
“As I was crossing the street to buy something, a young man suddenly grabbed me and put a black plastic bag on my head,” she said. “I just lost control.”
She woke up some time later in a strange tent, bleeding, with “10 men on me.”
“As I was yelling for help, they said ‘We didn’t kill you. What are you crying for?’ “ A month later, she knew she was pregnant. The $150 (U.S.) she needed to have an abortion never materialized and now she has a month-old baby who is a frequent witness to her tears, and she to his.
“The baby cries a lot. My milk isn’t enough for him,” she said.
“I should not like him. When he came out of me, I began to love him,” she said. “But I will never forget.”