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Haiti's 300,000 Child Slaves Have Few Alternatives

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  • Djehuti Sundaka
    http://www.sunspot.net/news/nationworld/bal-te.haiti28nov28,0,4229050.story?coll=bal-nationworld-headlines Haiti s 300,000 child slaves have few alternatives
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      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
      them here.

      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
      to stay.

      '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.

      The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

      Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun
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