In Haiti, 300,000 face abuse working as near-slaves

Nobody's Children

Port-au-Prince, Haiti - During his first few days as a live-in servant with an affluent family here, 11-year-old Dieusibon Delci thought he'd found paradise. Though he slept on the floor and worked from dawn to late evening, for the first time in his life he had enough to eat.

Then the matron of the house began striking him in the head with hot, cast-iron pans to make him work harder. When he nodded off one day while washing dishes, she slammed a gigantic pot filled with boiling oil on his left hand, smashing his fingers.

"She kept beating me and telling me to work more," whispered Dieusibon, whose left fingers are fused at the knuckles and whose temple is flat and shiny from repeated blows.

After two years of abuse, Dieusibon ran away from his keepers. But nearly one in 10 children, most of them from impoverished families, continue to work for nothing but room and board in the homes of relatives or strangers.

Haitians call the children "restaveks," a Creole term from the French phrase "rester avec" ("to stay with"). Human rights and labor organizations call them slaves.

"At the least, most of these children don't receive the schooling or care that they should," said Merrie Archer, senior policy associate for the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, who recently co-authored a blistering report on the restavek phenomenon. "And many are subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse."

Haitians, particularly in the countryside, have sent their children to live and work with wealthier families since the 18th-century colonial era. But with four-fifths of the country's 8 million people struggling to survive on less than a dollar a day, the practice continues to flourish - a bitter irony to many observers, given that Haitian slaves two centuries ago ousted the French and established the world's first black republic.

"The very slaves who fought for independence wanted to live as their former masters had, so they took the children of those who were even poorer and enslaved them," said Jean-Robert Cadet, a teacher at the University of Cincinnati whose 1998 memoir, "Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American," helped focus attention on the issue.

As a restavek three decades ago, Cadet said, his masters beat him with the same kind of leather whip the French used on slaves. "To be a restavek is to be an untouchable, the ultimate have-not in a society of have-nots," Cadet said.

An estimated 300,000 children who are 14 or younger work as restaveks, and a fifth of those are younger than 12, according to the National Coalition on Haitian Rights. The group's report, like many studies, accuses Haitian authorities of doing little to combat the problem. Officials counter that they are doing the best they can with few resources in what is the hemisphere's poorest country.

Many restaveks work for Haitian families that aren't wealthy enough to pay for servants and who often aren't much better off than the childrens' parents. Still, many Haitians believe the children will fare better than at home.

"The lady who took them told me she'd treat them well," said Rosanna Saint-Hilaire, a widow who in the past six years sold two of her nine children to a restaurant owner here for the equivalent of $60 apiece. The children, both boys, were 11 and 8 years old when she sold them. "Anyway," she added, her lips tightening, "I had to sell them because otherwise, I had no way to feed the rest of my children."

Saint-Hilaire said she sold her older son for money to find a new home after her shack in Cité Soleil, one of the worst squatter slums of Port-au-Prince, burned down during a riot.

She now lives in the worst part of another Port-au-Prince slum, Waph Jeremie, a mile from main roads along paths overflowing with sewage and next to a massive dump where naked children crawl through sooty garbage, scrounging for food.

The one-room shack of tin and cardboard she shares with a dozen people is barely large enough for three rickety beds, the only furniture. She cooks on a coal burner that sits in an adjacent alley filled with flies.

Meanwhile, Saint-Hilaire's two restavek sons said they'd been forced to work 19-hour days scrubbing and lugging 25-pound jugs of water at the restaurant before they fled. Val Michelet, 17, ran away three years ago and helped his brother, Robinson Joseph, 11, escape this year. They now live at Haitian Street Kids, a shelter for homeless boys in Port-au-Prince.

"Mostly, all she fed us was the burned crust from the rice pots. She beat us every day with a wire cable," Val said of the restaurant owner.

The two boys slept on a dirt-floor porch with no mattress or blankets. Sometimes the restaurant owner's two young sons would urinate on them during the night, the youths said. In the morning, Val and Robinson had to take those same sons to school, lifting them onto their shoulders and carrying their books.

"Sometimes I was so dirty I was ashamed to take them to the schoolhouse," Val recalled.

After dropping the children at school, Val and Robinson had to return to work. Three-fourths of restaveks don't attend school, according to a 1998 study by Haiti's Psychological-Social Institute of the Family.

Many restaveks see their parents rarely, if ever, experts say. Since running away, Val and Robinson have visited their mother a few times a month. But on a recent reunion, the contact was visibly strained.

Restaveks' masters are almost never prosecuted for abuse, according to many children's advocates. "The laws are so weak and poorly enforced, they're useless," said Michael Brewer, the director of Haitian Street Kids.

Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former parish priest, last year called the restavek phenomenon "one of the cancers on our social body in Haiti that keep democracy from growing."

Still, Haitian law lets children work as domestics from age 12 and doesn't require them to be paid until they are 15. A government hotline to report abuses against restaveks and other children is understaffed, making follow-ups on complaints minimal.

The National Coalition for Haitian Rights urges tough child-protection laws, as well as programs to address the poverty and lack of opportunities that drive parents to give up their children.

Government officials said they are working on education and rural development projects and also have started a program to help return restaveks to their families of origin. "We welcome the NCHR report and in fact their recommendations are along the lines of what the government in Haiti is already doing," said Minister of Social Affairs Eudes Saint-Preux Craan.

However, authorities claim their efforts are hamstrung by a U.S.-led blockade of about $500 million in foreign aid earmarked for Haiti - about 1 1/2 times the nation's annual budget. Western donors are withholding the funds to press Haitian political leaders to resolve a dispute over allegations that with Aristide's Lavalas party rigged the legislative elections in 2000.

Many restaveks flee their masters, contributing to the nation's burgeoning population of street children. Experts say those who are lucky enough to end up in shelters often are scarred emotionally as well as physically.

Dieusibon, who left the provincial city of Jacmel to become a restavek because his widowed mother couldn't feed him, has lost the use of his left hand since his task-mistress smashed it with a pot.

Since ending up at Haitian Street Kids last year, he has spent much of his time staring at nothing and crying, Brewer said. He also, with no prompting, will seize a rag and start cleaning the floors, faster and faster.


By Letta Tayler,0,5119930.story?coll=ny-worldnews-print




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