Haiti's Restavèk Children

01/02/2012 - Haiti is home to hundreds of thousands of restavèk children, whose families send them away to work as domestic labourers in exchange for their schooling and other care.

In Creole, “restavèk” means “stay with”—a seemingly benign name for a child from a poor family who stays with wealthier families or relatives.

The long-rooted tradition in Haiti of the restavèk is meant to help children who could not otherwise afford school and other services obtain them in exchange for small services for their host families, who bear the expense.

“The practice originally involved the transfer of the child from one family to another. However, the restavèk system is more accurately characterized as trafficking and now often involves middlemen recruiters, or koutchye, who are paid to find a restavèk for host families,” says a report by Restavèk Freedom.

Children are supposed to be cared for as members of the family. Some do live like brother and sister with their host families’ children—like daughter or son with the parents. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Children can instead be forced into domestic servitude, suffering abuse from their host families. The schooling, health care and other services promised never materialize for some of Haiti’s estimated 225,000 restavèk children.

Some of these youth may even feel the sting of a cowhide whip, called the rigwaz, a relic from Haiti’s years as a slave colony still used to beat some restavèks, Reuters reported in 2010.

An October report by Restavèk Freedom, entitled Restavèk: The Persistence of Child Labor and Slavery, was drafted for submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council as part of Haiti’s Universal Periodic Review. It says that as many as two-thirds of restavèks are girls, vulnerable to sexual abuse away from members of their host families.  This troubling reality is shown by the name sometimes given to restavèk girls: “la pou sa”—“there for that.”

Boys and girls often come from the countryside to live with more well off families in the capital, Port-au-Prince, or the Dominican Republic. They may also be found in slums, such as Cite Soleil, the capital’s largest slum.

“Since families in these poor neighborhoods usually lack employment and are unable to pay for domestic help, these families rely on free child labor,” says the Restavèk Freedom report.

A joint study by the Pan-American Development Foundation and the US Agency for International Development found that 16 per cent of all Haitian children surveyed were restavèks, as compared to 40 per cent in Cite Soleil.

The Haitian government’s Institute of Social Welfare and Research works with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to help rescued restavèks reunite with their families. Ensuring long-term reintegration must sometimes be a measured process, as families must be located and not traffic their children again.

Parents struggle with the costs of raising and providing for many children, prompting them to give their sons and daughters away in the first place.

But parents don’t always know that they are placing their children into exploitative conditions. UNICEF has offered micro grants as one intervention that can relieve some of the pressures families face and encourage them not to give up a child.

UNICEF is also working to ensure that trafficked children receive psychosocial care as well as to reanimate the government’s Sectoral Working Group on Children in Domesticity.

Child trafficking, child labour and the denial of children’s right to education violate the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Labour Organization’s Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour.