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25315: Wharram - news - Servitude steals childhoods in Haiti (fwd)
From Bruce Wharram <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Posted on Wed. June 7, 2005
Servitude steals childhoods in Haiti
BY GARY MARX
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - (KRT) - Each morning, 13-year-old Claudia Lundi
wakes at 4 and begins cooking, sweeping, fetching water and doing other
household chores that last until well after sunset.
She sleeps on the concrete floor cushioned by a pile of clothing and eats
sparingly, alone, in the kitchen.
"If I don't finish my work they will beat me up," said Lundi, picking
nervously at her fingernails. "They beat me with a whip all over my body."
Born in the southwestern city of Jeremie, Haiti, Lundi has been working as a
servant for five years. She is one of tens of thousands of Haitian children
sent by their impoverished parents to work in the homes of relatives or
strangers for nothing but room and board.
Known in Haiti as "restaveks," from the French phrase "rester avec" - to
stay with _children in such conditions are growing in number as Haiti's
crisis deepens 15 months after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand
Aristide, according to social workers and experts.
As heavily armed pro-Aristide gangs battle United Nations peacekeeping
forces and threaten elections scheduled for the fall, there are few signs of
progress in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country.
Foreign donors have yet to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in
promised assistance. Massive work projects to clean irrigation ditches and
repair schools remain on the drawing board in a country where most residents
earn less than a dollar a day.
With too many mouths to feed, many rural Haitians dispatch their children -
mostly girls - to families in Port-au-Prince that are only slightly better
off, unknowingly consigning those as young as 5 to a life of labor and
Most restaveks never attend school and suffer malnourishment. They carry
emotional scars from being beaten with electrical cords, leather belts and
other objects. Some children are sexually abused.
"I wake up in the middle of the night and the kids are screaming," said
Father Pierre St. Vistal, who runs a shelter for 60 former restaveks in the
Port-au-Prince slum of Cite de Dieu, or City of God.
"Sometimes they scream because they are scared of people coming back to
fetch them," he said. "They also scream because they miss their parents."
Lundi and other restaveks say they would like to return to their parents,
but don't have money for bus fare or have been away so long they don't know
how to get home.
Natasha Jeune, a 13-year-old restavek from the central plateau town of
Mirebalais, said she doesn't recall the last time she saw her parents. A
relative picked her up and took Jeune to live with a family in
Port-au-Prince when Jeune was about 5 years old.
Her eyes cast downward, Jeune described a typical, 16-hour workday in which
she does everything from serving food to washing clothes to emptying
containers full of excrement to lugging water to the house.
"Sometimes when I carry a bucket of water, it's too heavy and I fall and the
bucket breaks," Jeune said in a soft voice. "They beat me up."
Jeune said she is only fed once a day and is forced to eat on the floor.
Unlike her host family members who sleep on beds, Jeune spends the night on
the ground wrapped in a thin bedspread.
"Life should not be like this, but I have no choice," said Jeune. "I would
like to go somewhere else and have a normal childhood."
Many restaveks who flee servitude end up among the hordes of street children
working odd jobs or begging and stealing to survive. One of them is Junior
Delusa, a 17-year-old who lives in the Champs de Mars area adjacent to
Haiti's gleaming National Palace.
Delusa said he prefers life on the streets to life as a restavek, where his
host family was verbally abusive.
"They started humiliating me," said Delusa, who washes cars at a crowded
downtown intersection. "They said, `Don't you see who you are? You are just
a restavek.' Life was unbearable."
Jean-Yves Georges, director general of Haiti's Ministry of Social Affairs,
said the government is carrying out a radio and television campaign to
educate Haitians against using restaveks.
Yet, he said the practice would likely continue as long as Haiti is
Some experts attribute the mistreatment of restaveks to the widespread
acceptance of corporal punishment in Haiti, along with the fact that Haitian
children often are treated as second-class citizens.
Critics also say the Haitian government has failed to enforce a law passed
in 2001 that prohibits the inhumane treatment of children.
"What's the purpose of a law outlawing unpaid domestic servants if the
practice continues and if they are subject to abuse?" asked Luz Angela Melo,
administrator of UNICEF's protection program in Haiti. "It doesn't provide
any real solution."
UNICEF estimates there are 173,000 restaveks in Haiti, though Melo cautioned
that accurate figures are difficult to find because it's a hidden
Experts say the origins of unpaid child domestic labor date to the late 19th
Century, when Haitians began migrating from the countryside to
Port-au-Prince seeking a better life.
Some children found work among wealthy families, where they lived with their
employers and developed a strong personal bond that minimized abuse.
Over time, Haiti's elite needed fewer domestic workers as refrigerators and
other household appliances became more common. Restaveks began working for
middle-class families and, increasingly, for the poor.
Today, most restaveks end up with families in Cite Soleil, La Saline and
other Port-au-Prince shantytowns characterized by flimsy tin and plywood
shacks, rivulets of raw sewage and violent street gangs.
"Peasant parents have the false notion that if you live in the city, you are
better off," said Jean Lherisson, a restavek expert and director of the
non-profit group Haiti Solidarity International.
"The truth is that these are people as miserable from an economic point of
view as the parents of the kids," he said.
While the Haitian government lacks the resources to help restaveks, a
handful of private groups are providing a small number of them with shelter,
food and schooling.
Lundi and Jeune are among 300 restaveks who spend a few hours each day at
the Maurice Sixto shelter, a Swiss-funded refuge in Port-au-Prince's
sprawling Carrefour neighborhood.
Marie Pasal Douyan, a social worker at the shelter, said many of the
children are alternatively aggressive and withdrawn after years of neglect
"They feel lost and abandoned," she said.
Yet, some parents say they have no choice but to give up their children.
Sitting alone in a downtown park, Gracilia Alexandre said she had just
dropped off her 12-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter at their uncle's
house unannounced because she could no longer take care of them.
Alexandre said her husband was killed in a robbery two years ago, and she
has been unable to find a job. She expects the uncle to force the children
to work for their food and shelter.
"I don't think they are going to be treated well," said Alexandre, 26. "It
was painful for me to make that decision."
© 2005, Chicago Tribune.
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