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#4080: Rosenita, slave at 6 (fwd)

From: Rosann Clements <rosann@onemain.com>

Haitian Labor Code
The Haitian Labor Code: ''No child under the age of twelve may be entrusted
to a family in order to be employed in domestic work.''
It also prohibits children from working during school hours and mandates
they get 10 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. It requires owners to
return the restavek to her family when it no longer has use for her.
Punishment is supposedly a fine of 1000 to 3000 gourdes, or $50 to $150 but
is rarely if ever enforced
Rosenita, slave at 6

By Ellen Lord, Post staff reporter
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Elimina Joseph, 51, sells sandals in a neighborhood
market from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. The money she earns with her basket of colorful
flip-flops pays to send her three sons to private schools, but it is not
enough for her to hire domestic help.
Instead, she has found a 6-year-old slave girl, Rosenita Joseph, to do her
chores. The emaciated girl sits under a table nearby, coming out to wash
Mrs. Joseph's dishes in a metal pail of dirty water or do other tasks. She
does not attend school.
The girl, called a restavek, is one of thousands of children given up by
destitute parents in the countryside and brought to Haiti's cities for
promises of an education and better life. Most end up slaving for abusive
masters who feed them little and keep them from school.
Restaveks used to belong only to the well-to-do, but now that workers are
cheap (a cook costs as little as $25 a month), the wealthier can afford paid
help, and in the past 20 to 30 years the restavek system has been embraced
by the lower classes.
''It's a problem that we cannot solve easily because it's not me who has the
child in slavery, it is my maid,'' said Mathilde Flambert, Haiti's minister
of social affairs, through a translator. ''Someone who has a restavek is (a
person) who does not have any money to pay someone to help them in the
The poor farmers and peasants who have migrated to the city to become cheap
laborers and market vendors find themselves in need of someone to clean,
baby-sit and run errands.
Some, like Joseph Andre Dodo, who lives in the Port-au-Prince slum of
Bertin, have no job at all, but still keep a restavek. Gladys Joseph, a
7-year-old restavek, stays with Dodo, his three children and his
sister-in-law in a two-room cinder block house. Dodo says Gladys is a
relative whose parents could not afford to feed her, but the girl says she
is not treated like other children in the family.
''They only go to school. They don't do anything,'' she says. ''I wash the
dishes all by myself in the afternoon. I fetch water.''
>From the look of her gaunt, withered body, she doesn't eat nearly as much as
the other children, including another 7-year-old, Stephie Dodo, who has
full, rosy cheeks, a necklace, earrings and a bow in her hair.
''They give me a little sweet potato and a little rice to eat,'' said
Gladys, who has had a fever for a day but hasn't seen a doctor. ''The other
girls eat rice with sauce and meat.''
Getting a restavek involves an almost ritual deception.
The potential owner travels - or has someone go for them - to the
countryside. It is important to act rich - to be in Sunday dresses and
suits, carrying radios - which are a status symbol in the poor rural areas.
The poor rural parents, who frequently cannot afford to feed all their
children, are promised the child will be educated, fed and cared for.
''But most often it is not true,'' said Leslie Jean Jumeau, administrator of
Foyer Maurice Sixto, a non-profit school in western Port-au-Prince that
feeds and educates about 350 restaveks. ''Those children become a slave at
their owner's house and he (the restavek) is very often mistreated. He does
not eat normally. He works a lot.''
The parents, in their desperation, are unaware of the true conditions their
children will endure.
''I think there is an information gap where the parents don't really know
what happens,'' said David Weissbrodt, co-director of the University of
Minnesota Human Rights Center. ''You're assuming telephones. You're assuming
means of communication that don't happen in Haiti.''
The parents believe their child is better off leaving the countryside where
three-fourths of Haiti's 8 million inhabitants live in metal shacks with no
running water or electricity. Less than 30 percent of rural people have
access to water from a clean stream or well and less than 20 percent to
adequate sanitation. Most cannot read.
''In the idea of the parent, he or she doesn't know that his child is living
in misery. He knows that his child has gone to Port-au-Prince, that he is
living in a big house,'' said Godfroy Boursiquot, producer of a radio
program for kids on Radio Haiti.
One villager in Bonnet, a small collection of shacks along National #4
highway east of Port-au-Prince, said outsiders have come before to get
children for household work. If the person looks trustworthy, promises to
educate the child and gives the mother a small gift, an arrangement can
usually be made, he said.
''For you, because you are a journalist. . . if you want a child, I will
arrange it for you right now,'' said Alexander Frankel, 47, to a visiting
Most of the parents never see their children again. Those who could afford
to travel to the city for a visit or who try to talk to their child are
frequently blocked by the child's new owners.
Parents who do go see their child and realize the abuse do not return, said
Dr. Legrand Bijoux, a psychiatrist who has made a count of restaveks in
Haiti for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
''If the child is mistreated, the mother would see that and not being able
to take the child back, she would stop visiting,'' he said. ''She would not
keep any kind of contact and the child would not know how to go back (to
Once gone, restaveks rarely find their way home on their own. They either do
not remember how to get back or cannot afford fare to the countryside.
Meanwhile, the restavek's owner climbs a rung in the social strata. The
restavek system flourishes in part because of the sharp class divisions in
The strict social hierarchy puts the upper crust elite at the envy of all
and leaves those below fighting to climb the ladder. Having distinction
above someone else - a hired hand or a restavek - is essential to social
''Everybody's competing for the best of everything,'' said Philippe Carl
Vilfort, a Haitian-American who is the boy ''Oliver'' in Cincinnatian
Jean-Robert Cadet's autobiographical account of his life as a restavek.
''I remember being the first family on the block having color television,''
said Vilfort, ''and that's when I got respect from the mulatto kids.''
Class tyranny permeates contemporary society in Haiti. Children and women
are considered second class and commonly abused; Haitian National Police
intimidate and abuse their authority; teachers taunt and ridicule their
The current government, which has its hands full dealing with a dying
economy, a poor and unhealthy public and crime and corruption even in its
own ranks, has historically only given lip service to international rights
groups and actually done little.
''The biggest violator of human rights is the government. The biggest
violator of the Labor Code is the government,'' said one political advisor
and businessman who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Children have even fewer rights - a parent can legally send her child to
jail as discipline. And restaveks have fewer still.
The restavek too often is left roaming dirt streets barefoot with the bony
dogs and skinny pigs.
Publication date: 06-05-00