Haiti's 300,000 Child Slaves Have Few Alternatives
Haiti's 300,000 child slaves have few alternatives
Plight could overshadow bicentennial celebrations
By Carol J. Williams
Los Angeles Times
November 28, 2003
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Madeleine Vilma describes the beating that drove
her to the streets as
if she deserved it.
"I made them mad at me," the skinny 15-year-old recalls of the two women
who had paid a pittance
for her six years ago and then put her to work as a maid. "I broke the
heel off my shoe, so they beat
me with their sandals."
Their anger not fully vented, the women she called Auntie and Maman then
singed her chest and
arms with jolts from a frayed electrical cord, Madeleine recounts,
rocking and shifting her legs at the
memory. "They wanted to mark me so that I would remember."
Sent to the slums of the Haitian capital when she was 9 years old by
parents unable to feed her,
Madeleine had been delivered by a trader into a life of unpaid domestic
servitude in exchange for
food and shelter. Like an estimated 300,000 other children in this
poorest of Western countries, she
had no alternative except homelessness and hunger.
Lately, foreign relief workers and Roman Catholic charities have been
encouraging Haiti's child
slaves to come out of the shadows to seek help and to expose a
century-old practice that has
subjected them to shocking abuse.
Their growing numbers have prompted questions about whether the world's
only successful national
slave rebellion 200 years ago was really a victory.
As Haiti approaches the Jan. 1 bicentennial of its independence from
French colonial rule, the plight
of child slaves is threatening to overshadow official celebrations. It
is also a measure of this ravaged
country's progress in the two centuries since the slave rebellion.
"How can we be celebrating the bicentennial when this is still going
on?" says the Rev. Pierre St.
Vistal, sweeping his hand to take in the barefoot, scarred and ragged
children huddled around the
doorway of his overwhelmed mission. "How can we as Haitians celebrate
anything when our kids
are on the streets, dying of hunger? This isn't a time for celebration
but for being ashamed."
St. Vistal's mission offers hot meals and a crude, wood-planked loft for
sleeping under its tin roof for
45 of the most mistreated girls from the surrounding shantytown of Cite
de Dieu, or City of God.
Six hundred others, still toiling in nearby hovels, come in for food and
lessons when their patrons
allow it. The Catholic priest says he is sometimes confronted with
machetes when he visits the
keepers' homes to urge them to let the children take advantage of
schooling paid for by foreign
Its name notwithstanding, there is no hint of divinity in Cite de Dieu,
through which flows a filthy river
carrying the city's wastes and rainwater out to sea. Narrow mud paths
strewn with rocks and refuse
left behind by the rainy season's inundations make passage perilous on
foot and impossible by car.
Rivulets of wastewater and sewage flow from beneath the single-room
shacks of tin and plywood.
Salvaged tires, peddlers' baskets, wood stoves and broken appliances
litter the unmarked streets
and alleys separating the hovels.
The children, called restaveks - from the French rester avec, meaning to
stay with - are not servants
of the wealthy but of those slightly less poor than the parents who sent
As Haiti slips further into extreme poverty each year, the wave of
children - some as young as 4 -
flocking to the cities has become a deluge, forcing most to settle for
whatever offer of shelter is on
hand. Children who are not brokered go door to door looking for a place
'There are no limits'
"Most of these patrons want someone they can have do anything they need
done without the
conditions that come with employing an adult domestic," St. Vistal says.
"With kids, there are no
limits. They have no rights and can be made to do anything. They're not
just slaves to the parents but
to the patrons' children as well."
A report in June by the U.S. State Department about human trafficking
accused Haiti's government
of tolerating the abuse of child servants. Education Minister Marie
Carmel Paul-Austin responded
with assurances that legislative action had been taken to outlaw
domestic servitude for children
younger than 12 and that education reforms were under way to help more
children get schooling.
Neither Paul-Austin nor another official responsible for child welfare
was available to discuss the
issue, said the ministry's spokesman, Miloody Vincent.
Parliament adopted a measure early this year restricting the use of
restaveks, but the Social Affairs
Office, charged with registering unpaid domestic workers, acknowledges
that there has been no
The plight of the children is heart-rending to people fighting for them.
"When kids come from the provinces to the city, the families treat them
like slaves, like lower life
forms," says Patrick Bernard, who has worked at the Foyer Maurice Sixto
refuge in the sprawling
Carrefour slum for seven years. "That reaffirms their sense of
inferiority, that they are treated like
property and not people."
'An act of solidarity'
Restaveks first appeared in the capital in the 1920s and 1930s, when
wealthy families, as "an act of
solidarity" with the rural poor, offered shelter and education in
exchange for domestic labor, explains
Wenes Jeanty, director of the Maurice Sixto program, named for a
playwright who first exposed the
plight of the restaveks in the 1960s.
As the gap between rich and poor widened drastically in recent decades,
ragged children coming
from the countryside became so numerous that they were forced to work
for anyone able to make
the daily pot of beans and rice go one mouth further.
The prospect of an education draws many children to Port-au-Prince, Cap
Haitian and other urban
centers, although few people who take in restaveks - paying the cost of
their transportation and a
few dollars to the traders - can afford to send them to school.
Secondary school costs about $145 for annual enrollment and $20 a month,
plus uniforms and
books, putting it out of reach for most Haitians, a majority of whom
earn less than $1 a day. If not
for the remittances sent by relatives abroad, Haitian schools would be
empty, says Gernie
Grandpierre, a matron at the Sixto refuge.
Jeanty acknowledges that aid projects such as the Sixto program are
probably helping only about 1
percent of the children.
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Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun