[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]
17394: (Chamberlain) Restaveks (fwd)
From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>
(LATimes, 21 Nov 03)
Child slavery sullies nation's history
Haiti has vast numbers of child slaves, raising the question of whether the
world's only successful national slave rebellion 200 years ago actually was
BY CAROL J. WILLIAMS
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Madeleine Vilma describes the beating that drove her to
the streets as if she deserved it.
''I made them mad at me,'' the skinny 15-year-old recalls of the two women
who had paid a pittance for her six years ago, then put her to work as a
maid. ``I broke the heel off my shoe, so they beat me with their sandals.''
Their anger not fully vented, the women she called Auntie and Maman then
singed her chest and arms with jolts from a frayed electrical cord,
Madeleine recounts, nervously rocking and shifting her legs, storklike, at
''They wanted to mark me so that I would remember,'' she said.
Dispatched to the slums of the Haitian capital when she was 9 by parents
unable to feed her, Madeleine had been delivered by a trader into a life of
unpaid domestic servitude in exchange for food and shelter. Like an
estimated 300,000 other children in this poorest of Western countries, she
had no alternative except homelessness and hunger.
Foreign relief workers and Roman Catholic charities lately have been
encouraging Haiti's child slaves to come out of the shadows to seek help --
and to expose a century-old practice that has subjected them to shocking
abuse. Their growing numbers have prompted questions about whether the
world's only successful national slave rebellion 200 years ago was actually
As Haiti nears the Jan. 1 bicentennial of its independence from French
colonial rule, the plight of child slaves is threatening to overshadow
official celebrations. It's also a measure of this ravaged country's
progress in the two centuries since the slave rebellion.
''How can we be celebrating the bicentennial when this is still going on?''
asked the Rev. Pierre St. Vistal, sweeping his hand to take in the
barefoot, scarred and ragged children huddled around the doorway of his
overwhelmed mission. ``How can we as Haitians celebrate anything when our
kids are on the streets, dying of hunger? This isn't a time for celebration
but for being ashamed.''
St. Vistal's mission offers hot meals and a crude wood-planked loft for
sleeping under its tin roof for 45 of the most mistreated girls from the
surrounding shantytown of Cité de Dieu, or City of God. Six hundred others,
still toiling in nearby hovels, come in for food and lessons when their
patrons allow it. The Catholic priest says that sometimes he is confronted
with machetes when he visits the keepers' homes to urge them to let the
children take advantage of schooling paid for by foreign charities.
Its name notwithstanding, there is no hint of divinity in Cité de Dieu,
through which flows a filthy river carrying the city's wastes and rainwater
out to sea. Narrow mud paths strewn with rocks and refuse left behind by
the rainy season's inundations make passage perilous on foot and impossible
Rivulets of wastewater and sewage flow from beneath the single-room shacks
of tin and plywood. Salvaged tires, peddlers' baskets, wood stoves and
broken appliances litter the unmarked streets and alleys separating the
The children, called restaveks -- from the French rester avec, to stay with
-- are not servants of the wealthy but of those just slightly less poor
than the parents who sent them here.
As Haiti slips further into extreme poverty each year, the wave of children
-- some as young as 4 -- flocking to the cities has become a deluge,
forcing most to settle for whatever offer of shelter is on hand. Children
who are not brokered go door to door looking for a place to stay.
''Most of these patrons want someone they can have do anything they need
done without the conditions that come with employing an adult domestic,''
St. Vistal said. 'With kids, there are no limits. They have no rights and
can be made to do anything. They're not just slaves to the parents but to
the patrons' children as well.''
Restaveks first appeared in the capital in the 1920s and '30s, when wealthy
families, as ''an act of solidarity'' with the rural poor, offered shelter
and education in exchange for domestic labor, explained Wenes Jeanty,
director of the Maurice Sixto program, named for a playwright who first
exposed the plight of the restaveks in the 1960s. But as the gap between
rich and poor widened drastically in recent decades, ragged children coming
from the countryside became so numerous that they were forced to work for
anyone able to make the daily pot of beans and rice go one mouth further.
"The wealthy families don't want to get involved anymore. They say this is
a form of slavery, and they don't want to be associated with it," says
Wenes Jeanty, who runs a charity that helps the children. "That has left
the children to the poor and less educated in the cities."
For most restaveks growing up far away from their families, there is no
caring soul to help them.
"The households that take these kids in see them as chattel," says Merrie
Archer, director of human-rights programs for the National Coalition for
"Often their own parents see them as chattel, as a means of getting support
for themselves once the kids get work in the city."
Few ever escape their indentured servitude to find paying jobs.
''Some of these kids have never felt affection,'' said Alabre Michelet, a
caregiver at Petionville's Timkatec boys' shelter, one of the more
comfortable refuges with its solid roof and tiled floor.
``Here they learn to be a family to each other. We'd like to do this for
all of the street kids, but we have far too few resources.''
People trying to help Haiti's enslaved children scoff at the government's
claims that it is addressing the problem. "There has been a law against
child labor for years, but it has never been enforced," says Jean
Lherisson, head of Haiti Solidarity International.