Hundreds of thousands of children are being forced into slavery throughout the world. Children are being sold or trafficked for labour or sexual exploitation in Asia, Africa and Latin America. One country though regularly gets mentioned: Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. It’s estimated that there are a quarter of a million child slaves in Haiti, that’s nearly one in ten of the country’s children.
These children are known as restavèks, a Haitian Creole word which literally means “to stay with”. The phenomenon has existed for a long time in Haiti. Originally, parents who were unable to raise their children sent them to families to get some education and food. In exchange the children did light chores in the house.
But the economic and political turmoil Haiti has experienced in recent decades have had a dramatic impact on today’s restavèks, says John Currelly, the country representative of PADF, the Pan-American Development Foundation, an organisation which is trying to raise awareness about the phenomenon.
“It is degenerated over the years to a form of internal slavery because the family situation has broken down. You have a situation now where very poor people in the cities need these slaves to look after their children, while they’re out making say two dollars a day. We think there are as many as 250,000 of these children in really awful circumstances here. There’s no such thing as a good restavèk anymore. It’s pure and simply slavery.”
The children often remain with their masters for years. Many come from rural areas and therefore have no idea that another life is possible, says Moïse Ariot of PADF.
“Sometimes they are afraid of the outside world. They think they might have even more problems if they leave. But some of the children who are seriously abused decide to run away and they wind up on the streets, where they’re likely to face even more abuse.”
The Haitian government has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and in 2003, it modified labour laws to prevent child domestic work, but these laws are rarely enforced. Between 1996 and 2000, the authorities conducted just over 120 child labour inspections a year. 100 restavèks were rescued from abusive households and placed in shelters, but none of the employers were fined or convicted. Haiti has also set up a special hotline called SOS Timoun, but it’s only open during working hours, and it’s not regarded as effective.
The Pan American Development Foundation is trying to raise awareness about the problem of the restavèks. It has put up billboards in the capital Port-au-Prince denouncing esclavage moderne or modern-day slavery. PADF is also working with local organisations that are combating the problem. “Haitians are very conscious of the restavèks”, says John Currelly.
“They’re very ashamed of this as a society, and there are surprising numbers of organisations – even in small rural areas – that have sprung up to combat it. We work with these organisations, providing them with funding for small projects, for example like putting up a booth in a fair or having a programme on the local radio, and so on.”
No one has any illusions that the problem will be resolved soon. The real solution is to create more jobs, but given the ongoing turmoil in Haiti, that is unlikely to happen soon. According to Moïse Ariot, “parents should also be encouraged to have fewer children and to send the ones they have to school.”
“But parents often think that by sending their child to work in a family, they’re helping their kid, but it’s only later that they learn what the child went through. Of course there are some exceptions: some families do provide a better future for the restavèks, but I would say that happens in only five out of every 100 cases.”