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9123: Where Slaves Revolted, Slavery Thrives
From: leone <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Where Slaves Revolted, Slavery Thrives
Marie Dupont--not her real name--recalls that she was playing outside her
family's shack, located in a remote corner of eastern Haiti, when a lady
passing by stopped and asked her mother if she could take the pretty
9-year-old to live in the capital city. Her mother readily agreed,
thinking she was giving her daughter the chance to fulfill the dream of
many poor Haitian peasants: to go to school and live in Port-au-Prince.
That dream turned out to be a nightmare. In her host family's middle-class
home in Carrefour, a smelly, dust-ridden suburb of Port-au-Prince, the
little girl became a slave. Forced to sleep on car cushions in the yard,
she toiled all day, fetching water from the community well, doing dishes,
cleaning house, hand-washing laundry, shopping at the market, cooking
meals. She was given little more than rags to wear--no shoes or
underwear--and ate scraps left on the family's plates. If she disobeyed,
she was lashed with an electrical cord. There was no talk of school, much
less a wage. After 3 1/2 months, she ran away. "It wasn't right," Marie
softly tells a visitor, turning to show a net of scars from the whippings
on her thin back.
Marie was lucky: She got away. But hundreds of thousands of children
locked into lives of slavery in this grindingly poor and politically
turbulent Caribbean nation aren't so fortunate. For 200 years they have
been known as restaveks, a Creole word taken from the French "rester
avec"--to stay with. UNICEF estimated in 1998 that they number some
250,000, or 14% of Haiti's population under 18, but a study under way by
that organization and others indicates that the real number may be much
Restaveks are usually girls, aged 5 to the teens, most of whom come from
poor rural families that cannot afford to send children to school or
simply have too many mouths to feed. The kids are given to relatives or
strangers, often through a family member who acts as an intermediary, in
cities and towns. Many never see their parents again, either staying on in
adulthood as domestic help, or moving out to the slums. "The biological
family receives no money," says Jacques Boyer, coordinator of UNICEF in
Haiti. "The idea is that the child is given a quality education, but
that's a rare case."
DEEPLY ROOTED. Instead, the children are turned into slaves who work 10 to
14 hours a day at the service of everyone in the house, even other
children. On top of that, they are routinely humiliated with cruel
nicknames and abysmal treatment and subjected to physical punishments,
such as kneeling on the bottom rung of a chair for an extended period of
time. Girls are especially vulnerable: They are commonly used for the
sexual initiation of teenage boys in the house. If a pregnancy results,
the baby becomes a second-generation restavek.
"Restaveks are very deeply rooted in the culture," says Emma
Sanchez-Fuentes, the International Labor Organization's Haiti
representative, who is working with UNICEF and the Haitian government to
phase out the practice; "99% of the people consider it normal." So normal,
in fact, that Haitian emigrants have taken the tradition with them:
Several cases of restaveks have surfaced in Miami's large Haitian
community in recent years.
The tradition seems a paradox in a country that became the world's first
black republic in 1804 when slaves rebelled and drove out their French
masters. "We have followed the system of the colonialists because we don't
know how to do anything else," says Father Miguel Jean-Baptiste, a
Catholic priest who is crusading to end the restavek tradition.
Father Miguel runs the Maurice Sixto Home on the outskirts of
Port-au-Prince, a schooling program for some 300 neighborhood restaveks
funded by the Swiss organization Fondation Terre des Hommes. It was there
that Marie ended up when she ran away, thanks to a neighbor who scooped
her up in front of her enraged mistress and delivered her to Father
Miguel, who plans to reunite her with her family.
On a recent afternoon in Port-au-Prince's oppressive summer heat, children
sit at benches in front of a blackboard, laboring at numbers and letters.
A group of older girls huddles under the scant shade of a tree, quietly
embroidering and sewing. Father Miguel has talked their host families into
letting them come to the home for three hours in the afternoons to learn
to read and write, as well as take up other skills that they can use
eventually to make their own living and improve their self-esteem. "They
come zombified," he says. "They're afraid to talk, look at people in the
eye. But after a while here, they're no longer the same child."
Once a month, he holds a meeting with the host "parents" to talk about
children's rights and how kids should be treated. "We're trying to change
the mentality," he says. But he acknowledges that in a society where it's
common to hear the saying, "Timoun ti bet," or "children are small
animals," it's slow going. Still, he points out that a neighbor helped
Marie to escape--an encouraging sign.
The oasis of affection and hope provides a much-needed respite for
children like Louis Valjean (also not his real name), a 14-year-old boy
from a rural town who went to live with his uncle two years ago when his
parents could no longer afford to send him to school. School, however, was
not on his uncle's agenda. Louis used to watch enviously every morning as
his cousins went off to classes and he had to stay home and do the
household chores. But now, with Maurice Sixto, "I don't mind as long as I
can come here," says Louis, wearing the blue shirt the home gives to the
children as their "school uniform"--a status symbol for kids who thought
they would never wear one.
Like many restaveks, Louis is subject to beatings: His uncle hits him with
a belt all over his body, he says with a slight stutter. But although he
has seen his parents, he doesn't dare tell them of the mistreatment.
"Imagine what they would do to me if they found out I had told my father,"
he says. "Maybe they would beat my father."
SPREADING THE WORD. restaveks' silence about their mistreatment,
especially sexual abuse, is a puzzling aspect of the tradition that has
allowed it to endure. Since they haven't heard otherwise, rural parents
genuinely believe they are doing their children a service by sending them
away. "They often choose the favorite child to go," says Sanchez-Fuentes.
"Information doesn't get back to them."
Many host families genuinely believe they are helping a poorer family. And
for almost two centuries, the Haitian government didn't see anything wrong
in the restavek practice, either. In 1985, however, the country adopted a
labor code to comply with international standards, and "children in
domesticity," as they are called formally, under the age of 12 were
outlawed. For children over 12, the law specifies that host parents must
apply for a permit and provide schooling, health care, leisure time, even
10 hours of uninterrupted sleep. "It's a wonderful law," says Boyer of
UNICEF. However, like many laws in Haiti, it has never been enforced.
Still, there are signs of hope. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who took
office in February, has put stamping out restaveks on his priority agenda,
and the Social Affairs Ministry is working with UNICEF and the ILO on a
program to restore restaveks to their families of origin. But in a country
that suffers from an 80% poverty rate, Aristide's agenda is full of
pressing problems, and the ministry is stretched thin. Progress is slow.
Not all restaveks are treated badly, either. At one of Port-au-Prince's
many community water faucets, a cheerful 13- year-old named Olivier tells
a visitor he lives with an aunt. When pressed, he admits she's not really
his aunt, but a madame with whom he has lived since he can remember. His
mother, whom he sees occasionally, lives in the city's infamous slum, Cite
Soleil. He says he works in the house in the mornings, goes to school in
the afternoons, and is not beaten. With his back ramrod straight, he
balances a heavy water jug on his head, spilling not a drop, and turns to
trudge up the hill. He's happy, he says. Unfortunately, not many restaveks
can say the same.
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