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Zokiki – Unavoidable “juvenile delinquency?”

Pétion-ville, HAITI, November 6, 2012 – In spite of an offensive against the zokiki phenomenon last year, the series of activities is far from being eradicated. In pursuit maximum profits, owners and managers of night clubs continue to exploit under-aged youth who come to their establishments to drink alcohol, consume drugs and engage of all kinds of imaginable activities. Abandoned in a society that does not take into account the importance of leisure activities for young people, these teenagers take full advantage of a “laissez-faire” situation.

Fifteen-year-old Marie Pierre is proud of her participation.

“I always go out to zokiki clubs. Each time, I put on really sexy make-up and dress zokiki style, which means ‘almost naked,’” she told Haiti Grassroots Watch (HGW) which undertook a two-month investigation into the phenomenon. “The only thing I can say about this so-called fight against the zokiki phenomenon is there isn’t one. It doesn’t exist. I say that because when I’m in the streets at midnight and I meet police officers, they don’t say anything!”

The phenomenon called zokiki appeared recently in Haitian urban society. The “juvenile delinquency” activities grouped under that label also include the “after-school” illegal clubs and “ti sourit” (“little mouse”) parties. Zokiki activities really took off after the January 12, 2010, earthquake. For many, they are a logical culmination of the disintegration of the cultural, moral and social tissue amongst Haiti’s youth. Many teenagers, younger than 18, drink, take drugs, engage in “strip-tease” acts, and also in a series of sexual acts that are not appropriate for their age. The Haitian Constitution defines adulthood as beginning at 18. (However, because of inconsistencies in Haitian law, the legal drinking age can be interpreted to be 16.)

Photo: Evens Louis

According to psychologist and professor Lenz Jean-François, the proliferation of “zokiki” is linked to the breakdown of Haitian society.

“Disintegration happens when a society enters into a period where it has lost its way,” explained the professor, who teaches at the State University of Haiti. “This same disintegration is responsible for encouraging young people to seek to replicate the models they see in front of them, or for encouraging them to do whatever they want, in a society where everything is permissible… All of a sudden, there are no longer any shared values. As long as we live in a society where each person only thinks about him or herself, it will be as if each is person is completely alone… This is why I think that the zokiki phenomenon is an indicator of the how our teenagers are living. It informs us of their human condition.”

The authorities take action

While the authorities might not understand the origins of zokiki, they are aware of it, and they have taken action.

“Since we are an institution charged with protecting youth, of course we are aware,” explained Jean Gardy Muscadin, director of the Haitian National Police’s Brigade for the Protection of Minors.

Early in 2012, the Brigade and the state’s Institute for Social Well-Being and Research launched an offensive against the phenomenon. Soon thereafter government’s top prosecutor (like an attorney general), Commissaire du gouvernment Jean Renel Sénatus joined the struggle, setting up a special unit to handle crimes and charges related to minors. His actions even earned him the nickname “Commissaire Zokiki.

In January 2012 alone, at least 64 people “were arrested ‘caught in the act’ of sexual orgies, strip-tease and the consummation of drugs in clubs and homes in Port-au-Prince, Delmas and Pétion-ville,” according to Le Nouvelliste dated February 1, 2012.

In an exclusive interview with HGW, the former commissaire explained that in addition to pursuing “judicial repression” against criminals, “it is also my job to protect all vulnerable groups in society.”

Speaking about his focus on zokiki, he continued “this little innovation I brought to the court showed people that the prosecutor is a lawyer who defends society in the same way as any other lawyer would do… no matter who you are, if you are exploiting a child, no matter where, no matter when, we can arrest you.”

However, the former prosecutor noted that arrest is not enough, because the [night club] sector “is completely without rules.”

“To open a nightclub, you just need a license from the state tax agency. City officials have no way to inspect or to assure the respect of norms,” he said.

The former commissaire ended by saying “Our biggest challenge is related to our lack of means… If I had the necessary power, I would force the entire world to respect the law. Because if a person, or an institution, or a country lacks discipline, it will not advance.”

But the former prosecutor no longer has any power.

On September 27, the Minister of Justice suddenly removed Sénatus from his post for alleged “insubordination,” an accusation and an action that have provoked numerous criticisms.

Cartoon in Le Nouvelliste the day Sénatus was fired. The people are saying,
"The crack-down is over! Goodbye Commissaire Zokiki!

The police don’t have the power or the means, either.

“We have no way to control this sector. We can only intervene when someone calls to report something,” Chief Muscadin said.

Zokiki” clubs and “party houses” all over the place

Not surprisingly, a mini-investigation by HGW discovered many places where “zokiki” activities take place, as well as a number of young people willing to talk about it.

“I can tell you right now, the prosecutor is wrong. I think he needs to do his homework. Because I know a lot of people who are under 18 who go to nightclubs. Me, I still go!” 17-year-old Marie-Isabelle Sait-Etienne said.

HGW had no trouble finding clubs. Level One/Escape is in the Jacquet area. It has a pool. On a recent night, some young people were smoking cigarettes and marijuana, others drank, and some of the girls were very scantily dressed. There was nobody at the door to check IDs for ages.

Above, the Level One/Escape club in the Jacquet area of Pétion-ville. The club
(known by its former as well as current name) is located across from a school,
below. Grafitti on the wall says "zokiki."
Photos: Evens Louis

Pierre, 15, said she has a lot of options.

“Sometimes I go to Club D, or Extrême Dynamique. Or, I go to “ti sourit” activities in Peguyville,” she said. “I always get in. Nobody ever asks for ID.”

Extrême Dynamique club in Pétion-ville. Photo: Evens Louis

HGW did not find one zokiki participant who said he or she had ever been asked to prove his or her age at the door.

The investigator also spoke to zokiki organizers, like Jean Ronald François. He swore that ever since the prosecutor’s offensive, he has not permitted minors to participate. But he also admitted that his programs are not innocent.

“Sometimes things happen, like when a girl takes off clothing, the boy has to do the same thing. During this kind of party, you see boys in undershirts and girls in their push-up bras,” François said.

Edouard Paul is 17 years old and lives in a poor neighborhood of Pétion-ville. He told HGW he thinks zokiki activities are the reason “a lot of adolescents 14 to 18 years old are pregnant or are already mothers. This happens when there are ‘anything goes’ parties.”

“The prosecutor can’t eradicate this phenomenon, because even if young people cannot get into night clubs, they will organize what is called ‘party house,’” he added. “What’s worse, we see that ‘the mulattos’* are the exception that confirms the rule! They all have these kinds of parties and activities. The police patrols know it but they don’t say anything.

Photo from a typical party of Haitian privileged teenagers, with
at least some under-aged guests. The Facebook page owner
writes "Some call me an alcoholic. I just call it a damn good time."

His friend agreed with the obvious prejudice.

“The laws are supposed to be applied equally to everyone. But you should see… there are even government officials who go with their children to the Ibo Lele [Hotel] parties,” Rockaz Romulus, 21 years old, added.

A city and a society with no amusements

According to the Haitian Institute of Statistics and Data, almost half of Haiti’s population – 43.6 percent – is under 18 years of age. A document from 2009 adds that “all ages taken together, the large majority of young people – 1.23 million – are concentrated in the West Department,” home to the capital region. At the same time, according to UNICEF, only 20 percent of Haitian youth ever attend high school. And many international agencies say Haiti’s unemployment tops 70 percent.

How should these young people – who don’t go to school and who don’t work – spend their time?

Almost everybody interviewed talked about the problem of “leisure time” or “amusement” for young people. Amusement and relaxing is key for good mental health.

Paul, the 17-year-old, talked about his frustration: “The prosecutor is fighting against ‘zokiki,’ but he doesn’t offer any alternative. Aside from those clubs, there is nowhere else to go.”

Professor Jean-François agrees.

“Whether you are talking about physical or mental development, young people need leisure activities,” the professor explained. However, “the social disintegration in which we are living leads to this kind of leisure activity, which in turn reinforces the disintegration of society by affecting how young people think about their relationships with each other and with society. This means that when a young person goes to a ‘ti sourit’ he is led into behavior which discriminates against his peers, behavior where young man can do almost anything to a young woman, who has become an object.”

In their 2012 carnival song, the rap group Barikad Crew sang “all little teenagers are corrupt!”

Image from Barikad Crew Carnival 2012 video, filmed with school children.

But is that corruption by choice? Not entirely, according to the professor, in a country there almost all of the media content “is based on mediocrity, on what I would call the ‘ideology of nothing.’”

Even if the authorities had more “means,” the structural causes of “zokiki” are unavoidable, he added.

“We live in a country where insecurity touches every facet of life, even leisure,” Jean-François noted. “Young people are practically forced into this kind of leisure activity. In the end, we can’t really say it is a choice they have made, because all aspects of society is pushing them in this direction.”

* Note from the editor 1: This is a typical confusion of class with color. While many of Haiti’s elite are lighter skinned, there are also many dark-skinned elite. Paul and Romulus are obviously referring to the elite, since they cite the Ibo Lele Hotel.

* Note from the editor 2: The names of minors have been changed.

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