Stéphanie grew up in Haiti playing football with joy and skill. She was scouted for the national team and was thrilled when she was invited to live and train at Haiti’s Centre Technique National in Croix-des-Bouquets, also known as ‘The Ranch’. However, what should have been a dream come true turned into a nightmare when Stéphanie (a pseudonym) and other girls as young as 12 at the Ranch realised they were at constant risk of sexual abuse by football federation officials — the very leaders who are trusted and expected to protect the children under their care.
In April, the Guardian reported on sexual abuse and neglect at Haiti’s national training centre. Survivors and their family members accused the Haitian Football Federation president, Yves Jean-Bart, of coercing young female players at the Ranch into having sex with him.
Since May, Human Rights Watch has interviewed numerous witnesses and collected evidence of systemic human rights abuses in Haitian football, including federation leaders confiscating players’ passports, committing labour rights abuses and grooming child athletes for sexual exploitation.
Witnesses and survivors of such abuses were subject to death threats after it became known the allegations were being investigated by FIFA.
FIFA’s independent Ethics Tribunal has had its own team on the ground in Haiti, and Human Rights Watch has worked with FIFA to ensure that survivors have access to counselling and witness protection. Human Rights Watch provided evidence of specific abuses to FIFA, while protecting survivors’ identities. FIFA suspended Jean-Bart, the Haitian Football Federation president in May, two other federation staff in August, and one in October, making a total of four officials now under FIFA investigation for allegedly participating in the sexual assaults of players and other crimes.
Stéphanie was never paid for her years of playing for Haiti’s national team. When she sought to advance professionally, she was told by federation staff her contracts and “my chance to play overseas depended on sleeping with the president”. When she was 16 or 17, she said, Jean-Bart “put his hand on my leg to get me to go with him”. She did not go with him but witnessed female Haitian Football Federation staff “waking girls up early to ‘go to the doctor’ and they would come back very late at night. All of the officials and staff at the centre knew what was going on”.
Like many players we interviewed, Stéphanie told researchers that officials took away and would not return her passport, a practice associated with controlling and limiting someone’s movements and human trafficking. Athletes also said that this led to manipulation, coercion and a terrifying cycle of abuses. Without their passports, they said, they could not flee to safety to disclose the abuse.
Protecting child athletes
Passport confiscation, dangerous working conditions and manipulation of footballers for sexual exploitation should be subject on a national level to investigation for prosecution under civil and criminal laws. But in the context of child athletes for whom sport is their job, there are also grounds for a complaint to be lodged at the International Labour Organization (ILO). ILO Convention 182 (on the worst forms of child labour) provides a vehicle for the government of Haiti, which ratified that Convention in 2007, to be held to account for what has happened in its jurisdiction.
In Haiti, women and girls struggle to get justice, and gender-based violence is a widespread problem. Human Rights Watch has long documented how women and girls in Haiti seeking accountability for sexual violence encounter multiple obstacles, including threats or reproach by members of the public. Some survivors experience reprisals for filing criminal complaints, leading them to drop charges.
In addition, Haiti is currently experiencing what the International Trade Union Confederation has called “one of the worst humanitarian and social crises” in the country’s history.
Trade union leaders are facing a barrage of attacks, dismissals, arrests and death threats, while an ever-worsening combination of political, social, economic and health challenges threaten to create a perfect storm.
Nor are the sexual abuses in Haiti’s football federation an isolated problem for the game. For instance, in Afghanistan, members of the Afghan National Women’s Football team accused the president of the Afghan Football Federation, Keramuudin Karim, and other officials of sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination. In 2019, FIFA issued a lifetime ban on Karim and fined him 1 million Swiss francs (about US$1 million). FIFA suspended Karim and other senior staff during its investigation into the sexual assault complaints, and eventually banned them from the sport.
We must salute the enormous courage of athlete survivors in Haiti and Afghanistan who have taken risks to come forward and report abuses in their football federations so that other young athletes could be protected.
These horrific abuses in Haiti and other places show the urgent need to protect athletes’ safety and health in sport, particularly child athletes, and punishments for those who abuse trust, labour and criminal laws, and human rights. These cases also show the importance of effective prevention and monitoring so that other child athletes do not experience such abuse, as well as the importance of a survivor-centred approach to justice and remedy.