The lanky teen is far from an isolated case in Haiti. She’s just one among tens of thousands of child servants in Haiti who endure what the United Nations calls a modern form of slavery.
Underaged domestic help is everywhere in Port-au-Prince’s tent cities, which formed after last year’s devastating earthquake and remain because of the glacial pace of reconstruction. The January 2010 quake caused many more of these young indentured servants to be put to work. And now, their lives are harder than ever before, experts said.
Before the earthquake, child servants lived and worked in Port-au-Prince’s homes. Today, many, like Rose Manette, serve their masters in tents.
With the nation’s entire infrastructure in disrepair — schools and neighborhoods destroyed — fewer of these children are going to school, and neighbors less frequently look out for their welfare, according to Nicole Muller César, founder of the Institute for Human and Community Development, a school in Port-au-Prince for slave children.
The children also face higher risks of being neglected and abused.
“Now, because of the tent situation, they are more exposed,” she said. “Anybody can do anything to them, without having someone say ‘Stop! You cannot do that.'”
With the birth rate tripling after the quake, according to the United Nations Population Fund, the number of these children, known as restaveks (from the French “to stay with”), could grow in the coming years as more families struggle to feed their children.
Haiti’s president-elect Michel Martelly, the right-wing pop star who takes office this weekend, has pledged to make public education free in Haiti, but so far he has made no promise to otherwise help these child servants.
The children haven’t received much attention from international aid groups, either.They are everywhere, and nowhere, in a sense: They may as well be invisible.
Some never reunite with their mothers, and they often don’t get loving physical contact from the adults they live with. ‘Owners’ are often unaffectionate, even if the host family is the child’s aunt or other biological relative, César said.
“They don’t have a life,” she said. “And nobody seems to care because it’s okay, it’s no problem, we’re used to the system.”
Restaveks often eat different food from other children in a household, wear cheaper clothes and are often not allowed to play with their peers.
In Haiti, “there’s nothing lower than a ‘restavek’ child except a dog,” said Glenn Smucker, a cultural anthropologist and consultant.