Child Servants a Blot on Haiti’s Abolitionist Past

restavek-4

In “Child Servants a Blot on Haiti’s Abolitionist Past,” Anastasia Moloney writes about Haiti’s restaveks, which refers to children that are sent to work for other families because their own are too poor to feed and look after them. It is estimated that about 300,000 children in Haiti are restaveks; that is one out of every ten children.

Dayana Denois was always the last to go to bed and the first to wake up. By dawn, she had washed the dishes and clothes, cleaned and swept the floor and emptied the chamber pots. “I didn’t know what resting meant. Even when I was sick, I’d never get a break,” Denois said, recalling the years she spent living with her aunt in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince. “She didn’t care if I was tired or not. She kept telling me to do things. She beat me with electric cables, shouted at me, punched and slapped me on the face,” the 12-year-old said. Denois was a “restavek”, from the French “rester avec” or “to stay with”, a Haitian Creole word that refers to the practice of parents giving away children they are too poor to feed and look after.

Mostly from rural areas, these children are sent to stay with wealthier relatives and acquaintances in the hope they will be given a better life and sent to school. But instead many of them are treated as little more than slaves. The irony is not lost in a country that was the first in the Americas to abolish slavery more than 200 years ago.

Experts say the number of restaveks accelerated after the massive earthquake on the Caribbean island nation in 2010. “Many children lost their families. They didn’t have a place to sleep and have someone to take care of them. And they met people who put them in domestic servitude,” said Marline Mondesir, who founded a refuge for restavek children.

[. . .] For Denois, four years of verbal and physical abuse finally ended when a concerned neighbor put her in touch with Haiti’s social services, which referred her to the Action Centre for Development. An hour’s drive from Port-au-Prince, the refuge is home to nearly 100 former restaveks and street children. Mondesir, who founded the centre in 1994, says poverty fuels the system of slavery. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere; nearly 80 percent of Haitians live on less than $2 a day.

[. . .] Middlemen, or “koutchye”, as they are known in Creole, are sometimes paid to recruit restaveks for host families living in the affluent neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince. But restaveks are also found living in the slums, where the lack of water and electricity means demand for child labour is high.

[. . .] The restavek system is driven by a combination of long-standing economic and social problems in Haiti, from widespread poverty and high unemployment to a lack of family planning and health care in rural areas. Campaigners say the failure of the Haitian authorities to focus on the rights of children or enforce existing laws against child labour is a big contributor.

But the restavek tradition could not exist if it was not accepted, or at least tolerated, in Haitian culture. “Some families believe they’re doing their restavek children a favor by saving them from living on the streets and a life of hunger in the countryside. Some families do send their restaveks to school and feed them,” said Mondesir. But this is more the exception than the rule, she said. Most restaveks arrive at her refuge unable to read and write, malnourished and with scars from beatings.

[. . .] “They’ve all been deprived of love and maternal affection,” said psychologist Luckenson Dardompre, who works and lives at the refuge. “But the source of their trauma is the mistreatment they’ve received for years, including rape and sexual abuse. Many are beaten by the families they live with, by the father, mother, uncles and aunts. [. . .] Some have suicidal thoughts. Other children will tell you about the abuse they’ve experienced using exactly the same words every time for weeks. It’s something they can’t forget,” Dardompre said.

The spacious and clean refuge, with its mountain and sea views, is a safe haven for the children. Here they receive three meals a day, go to school and play. [. . .] Mondesir and her staff do their best to give the children an education. Inside the brightly painted green and pink classrooms, they learn how to use computers, to read and write, and other skills like sewing. Mondesir hopes it will allow the children to fend for themselves and get a job when they leave the refuge at 18. But in a country where one in every two adults is unemployed, few will find decent jobs. The long-term aim of the refuge is to reunite children with their biological parents. Social workers often go to the countryside to track down their families. The children’s yearning to be with their mothers again is strong.

For full article, see http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/12/04/us-haiti-restaveks-idUSBRE8B300320121204

For photo above and a related article (from UHL Blog), see http://uhlblog.org/2011/03/23/the-silent-screams-of-the-restaveks/

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