Haitian Street Kids, Inc. (HSKI)
In Focus: Restavek Child Slavery in Haiti - Stolen Childhoods
A Restavek (from the French language reste avec, "one who stays with") is a child who is sent or sold by their parents to work for a host household as a domestic servant because the parents lack the resources required to support the child. Restavek may refer to a child staying with a host family, but usually refers specifically to those who are abused.
In Haiti, parents unable to care for children may send them to live with who they believe to be more affluent families. This is perceived as acceptable because in Haitian culture, it is ubiquitous for housing to be shared among members of an extended family, including distant relatives. (In contrast, the concept of a single nuclear family occupying each household is seen as desirable in other cultures.) Often these relatives, or nonrelated individuals who purchase these children, are living in more urban areas. The children receive food and housing (and sometimes an education) in exchange for housework. However, many restavecs live in poverty, they most often do not receive proper education and sometimes, the child could be abused, beaten or raped. The United Nations considers this to be a "modern form of slavery".
Poverty and slavery have been connected with Haitian culture since Spain and France divided Hispaniola. Haiti proclaimed independence in 1804. Rich, light-skinned Haitians controlled the government. The elite class made the poor families believe that if they did not have enough money, then they should send their children off. A lot of poor families resorted to this way of life.
They are mostly young black girls that are around the age of 9 and younger. However, there are thousands of young males that are involved in this system as well. These young boys and girls are born into poverty and they have suffered some type of mental, physical, and sexual abuse. They have no social or political voice, so they can not determine their futures. A lot of parents send their children to be restavecs thinking that they are going to live a better life, but most times this is not the case. Many poverty stricken parents, especially single mothers or fathers, will sell their children to individuals who go to the country side or to poor areas seeking a source of free labor. Children who are raised in a poor family or lose their parents generally are forced to become domestic workers in Haiti.
Restavecs are not paid for long working hours. They work in horrible conditions that are not good for their health. While at work many of the children suffer sexual harassment from their owners.
In the beginning, restavecs were slave children who "belong" to well-to-do families. In these recent times, the majority of restavek slave children are owned and held by poor families or other destitute individuals who are not much better off than the parents who sent the child away. In order for the individual or host family to obtain a source of free labor which they could not afford otherwise, parents are generally manipulated into believing that the new host family will have the means to support the child and offer education, medical care and other needs that they themselves are not capable of offering the child. In many cases, the child is outright purchased from poverty stricken parent or parents who have more children than they are able to support. Once in the new home, the child receives no pay and are kept out of school. Since the emancipation and independence of 1804, affluent blacks and mulattoes have reintroduced slavery by using children of the very poor as house servants. They promise poor families in faraway villages who have too many mouths to feed a better life for their children. Once acquired, these children lose contact with their families and, like slaves of the past, are abused and treated merely as property, not as children or human. Some of these children will be given new names by the owner for the sake of convenience.
A 2009 study by the Pan American Development Foundation found the following:
In general, leading indicators of restavèk 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 restavèk child must use formal terms of address when speaking to social superiors including virtually all other household members. This expectation applies to restavèk relations to other children in the household, even children younger than the restavèk 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 average for their grade level, and their rates of non-enrollment are higher than non-restavèk children in the home.
The adult class of this community cannot provide for their children so they still continue to send them to be restavecs. Haiti is a nation of eight million people and 300,000 children are restavecs. There is still a "hidden nature" about this domestic service that these children have to deal with. Employers and other elite people want these restavecs because they know that they can pay them little or no wages and children have more energy so they can work longer hours.
As poverty and political turmoil increase, human rights observers report that the number of restavecs continues to rise dramatically Most people will get rid of their restavecs by the time they turn fifteen, because a law was passed stating that at age fifteen all people must be paid. Therefore, these children are then thrown out into the streets to provide for themselves. Right now there are efforts being made to help these children in Haiti.
In May 2009, over 500 Haitian leaders gathered in Port-au-Prince, Haiti to discuss the restavec system and how to make positive changes to this complex problem. Leaders from all facets of society attended the full day session and conference organizers from The Jean Cadet Restavek Foundation and Fondation Maurice Sixto hope that this dialog is the start of a large grass-roots movement to, at a minimum, stop the abuse of restavec children.
Other organizations in Haiti are also actively working in south-western Haiti with restavec children. Although efforts have increased during the recent years there is still much work to be done.
It is believed that the 2010 Haiti earthquake has caused many more children to become restaveks, as children who were orphaned by the quake could potentially be turned over by distant relatives who cannot care for them.