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9267: Slavin: Business Week article (fwd)

From: pslavin@unicefusa.org

SEPTEMBER 24, 2001 

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 higher.
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 
"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 
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. 
By Christina Hoag
EDITED BY Edited by Harry Maurer

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