From Rubble to Restavek

Amnesty International and UNICEF estimate that 300,000 Haitian children (10% of the total child population) were working as restaveks before the earthquake hit on January 12, 2010. The term “restavek” or “restavec” is derived from the French words – “rester” and “avec” or “to stay with” (“timoun ki rete key moun” in Créole) and is used to describe a long-standing practice, whereby an impoverished family sends their child or children to stay with an affluent “host” family. Guerda Lexima, a child’s right activist who has worked on behalf of restaveks for nearly twenty years, says restaveks are children from “extremely poor rural areas in particular; it’s a child whose parents don’t have the means to feed or send him to school.”

The host family may be a distant relative that lives in Port-au-Prince or some other urban area who agrees to provide the child with food, shelter, and an education in exchange for housework. But most restaveks live as indentured servants in abject poverty. Though it is not uncommon to find young boys working, the majority of restaveks are usually young, black females ages 9 or under who have suffered some type of physical, mental or sexual abuse. The child begins work immediately upon arrival and generally works from dawn to dust, leaving little time for rest and no time for school.

Leading indicators of restavek treatment include work expectations equivalent to adult servants and long hours that surpass the cultural norm for children’s work at home, inferior food and clothing compared to other children in the home, sleeping on the floor rather than in a bed, no time out for play, and a common expectation that the restavek child must use formal terms of address when speaking to social superiors including virtually all other household members. This expectation applies to restavek relations to other children in the household, even children younger than the restavek child, e.g., Msye Jak (“Mister Jacques” rather than simply “Jacques”).

Education is also an important indicator in detecting child domesticity. Children in domesticity may or may not attend school, but when they do attend, it is generally an inferior school compared to other children. Restavek children are also more likely to be over age for their grade level, and their rates of non-enrollment are higher than non-restavek children in the home.[1]

To make matters worse, many restaveks are completely isolated from their immediate family. They have no political voice and are terminated when they reached fifteen years old, the age Haiti’s laws mandates all workers must be paid.  As a result, urban cities are flooded with homeless children who either succumb to a life of crime or are the victim of serious crimes such as assault, rape and murder.

In 2008, UNICEF and CARE estimated that more than a 100,000 girls had been sexually assaulted and/or gang raped in Port-au-Prince. The Haitian Women’s Solidarity Movement, one of the few Haitian organizations that report sexual battery to authorities, documented 238 cases of rape during an 18 month period ending in June 2008. Of the 238 cases of rape, 140 (58%) of these cases involved girls that were between the ages of 19-months to 18 years old.

Restaveks are modern-day child slaves and there is a growing concern that this number may double in the aftermath of the earthquake. Children who have lost their parent(s) in the earthquake, children who were in orphanages that now lay in ruins, and adults who had little and now have nothing are all at risk of succumbing to the notorious child brokers who prey on large, poor families and convince them that their child or children will be better off living with an affluent host family. It is a tried and true con that has worked since Haiti’s independence from France in 1804.

Then the rich, light-skinned Haitians controlled the government and convinced the darker-skinned Haitians that they were too poor to care for their children and thus should send them to work for the elite families. The practice is so ingrained in the Haitian culture that, despite a 2003 law banning it, poor families continue to send their children away. A 2009 study by the Pan American Development Foundation revealed that 11% of household with restaveks send their own children to work as restaveks for other families. And the problem spans beyond the Haitian borders.[2]

Human rights organizations have documented restaveks being trafficked in the Dominican Republic as domestic servants and sex slaves. Authorities in the U.S. have been aware of the problem since the late 1990s. As one reporter noted, the phenomenon could not be ignored after October 2, 1999.

Florida officials working on a tip from neighbors removed a 12-year-old Haitian girl—filthy, unkempt and in acute abdominal pain from repeated rape—from the affluent suburban home of middle class Haitian-American merchants. Willy and Marie Pompee in Pembroke Pines. The girl, restavek, said she had been forced to have sex with the Pompee’s 20-year-old son Willy, Jr. since she was nine.[3]

The problem is further compounded by the silence that surrounds the issue and Haitians’ unwillingness to either see the practice as criminal or report to the police. Restaveks who want to escape their hellish environment have nowhere to turn. They “know cops in Haiti to be brutal and corrupt [and] are generally loath to approach police in the U.S. Plus, they fear that turning in their captors to authorities may elicit reprisals.” [4]

Child slavery and human trafficking are illegal under Haitian law, U.S. law, and international law. It is important that the United Nations, United States and other nations involved in the Haiti relief earthquake effort identify and protect Haitian children at risk.

[1] Pan American Development Foundation, Lost Childhoods (2009), http://bit.ly/5Hn3gn.

[2] Id.

[3] Tim Padgett, Of Haitian Bondage, TIME Magazine (May 4, 2001), http://bit.ly/6j2G7q.

[4] Id.

*Other sources include: Amnesty International, CARE, Haitian Women’s Solidarity Movement, Human Rights Watch, and UNICEF

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