The Institutionalized System of Forced Labor Affecting Young Haitian Children
By: Jess Frankovich, Guest Blogger
Haiti has been anti-slavery for over two-hundred years. The Haitian revolution that liberated the nation was the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere. Established in 1803, the nation was founded on the principles of abolition and freedom. Two hundred years later, hundreds of thousands of children wake up in the Caribbean island nation to another day of forced servitude.
It’s part of a system where children in poor, rural families are given away to live with a host family in an urban area. The host family provides the child with an education, room, and board, and the child in return performs domestic duties and chores for its host family. These children are called Restavek, which means “stay with” in Creole.
This sounds okay, right? Granted, there are some cases where this works out well, and the child gets an education who normally wouldn’t have the opportunity. However, host families tend to neglect their end of the deal, instead exploiting the vulnerable children.
"We were -- these kids are -- the lowest of the low, just treated like dogs," said Jean-Robert Cadet, who was a restavek from age 5 to 15. Marilaine, who was brought to Port-au-Prince at age 10, slept on the floor of her host family’s house and was beaten daily with electrical cords. Another 12-year-old restavek wakes up at four in the morning every day to get things in order for “the princesses,” her name for the teenage girls she lives with.
Host families often neglect the child’s education: restavek children are much more likely than their peers to be absent from school. Host families often subject the children to corporal punishment. Young girls, who make up the majority of restaveks, are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse. The children are neglected and deprived of a childhood; one reported that she had never been able to touch a book until she was rescued.
This system “deprives children of their family environment and violates their most basic rights,” said UN contemporary slavery expert Gulnara Shahinian, “...as well as subjecting them to multiple forms of abuse including economic exploitation, sexual violence and corporal punishment, violating their fundamental right to protection from all forms of violence.”
Thankfully, many organizations are stepping up to help exploited children. The Restavec Freedom Alliance builds schools and homes for children freed from the system. The Restavek Freedom Foundation operates another home for freed children in Port-au-Prince. The Haitian government has started to give micro-grants to families who intend to give their children away.
When I was an eight-year-old child, I could barely order my own food at a restaurant. I can hardly imagine having to stand up for myself to adults I barely knew, risking punishment and, in some cases, homelessness.
Alone in an unfamiliar environment and often no contact with family members, these small children are their only advocates. But in Haiti, where 59% of the people live on less than $2.44 per day, it can seem like it’s the only option for children families can’t provide for.
It’s all too easy to turn a blind eye to human suffering when it’s not happening right in front of your eyes.
But if we don’t advocate for these children robbed of childhood, freedom, and family, who else will?
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Jess Frankovich is a women’s rights advocate and student in Rochester, New York. Read more of her writing on her website, GirlsSpeak.org