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25372: (news) Chamberlain: Haitian kids suffer in servitude (fwd)
From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>
(Chicago Tribune, June 05)
Haitian kids suffer in servitude
Long hours and beatings fill days of children sent away from home
BY GARY MARX
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- 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 Claudia, picking
nervously at her fingernails. "They beat me with a whip all over my body."
Born in the southwestern city of Jeremie, Haiti, Claudia 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 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 $1 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
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
the Rev. 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."
Claudia 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 her to live with a family in Port-au-Prince
when she was about 5 years old.
Her eyes cast downward, Natasha 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," Natasha said in a soft voice. "They beat me up."
Natasha 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, Natasha spends the night
on the ground wrapped in a thin bedspread.
"Life should not be like this, but I have no choice," Natasha said. "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.
Junior said he prefers life on the streets to life as a restavek, where his
host family was verbally abusive.
"They started humiliating me," said Junior, 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 TV campaign to educate
Haitians against using restaveks.
Yet, he said the practice likely will 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 the United Nations Children's Fund 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 calculate because it's a
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 poor people.
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 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
nonprofit 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.
Though 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.
Claudia and Natasha 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."