“I’m struggling to end slavery because I know how I suffered,” said Helia Lajeunesse, a former restavèk, child slave, who is now a children’s rights advocate.
Today, there are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world, according to the research of Kevin Bales of Free the Slaves. This is more than at any time in history, even including during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
In Haiti, the only nation ever to host a successful slave revolution, 225,000 to 300,000 children(1) live in forced and usually violent servitude in a system known as restavèk, literally “to stay with.” The numbers are at risk of rising dramatically because of the hundreds of thousands of children who lost their parents or were abandoned after the earthquake. In addition to likely trauma, hunger and health problems, unaccompanied minors are at threat from adults who may take advantage of a source of free labor. Unprotected girls are also at risk of what amounts to sex slavery, as rape of restavèk girls by the men and youth in the household is common.
The system usually works this way: A parent who cannot afford to feed or educate a child may give him or her to a better-off relative, neighbor or stranger who promises to provide care and schooling. The families giving up children are usually from the countryside, where poverty is unrelenting. The children are as young as three, with girls between six and 14 years old comprising 65 percent of the population.
Restavèk children toil long hours and rarely go to school. They are regularly abused. They usually eat table scraps or have to scavenge in the streets for their own food, sleep on the floor and wear cast-off rags.
They are not chained or locked up. One reason the children usually stay is the threat of severe punishment – often including beatings – if they are caught trying to escape and are returned to the family. Another reason is that they have no other source of food and shelter. Survival and safety options for street children in Haiti are not good, though some restavèk do escape to live on the streets.
Alina “Tibebe” Cajuste described her childhood as a restavèk this way: “This is a sad, sad story to the world. A woman who used to come sell in the market told my mother to give me to her. My mother had no support, so she had to.
“What did this woman make me do? I had to get up before 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning to make the food, sweep the floor and wash the car, so that when the family woke up everything would be ready. Then I had to wash dishes, fetch water and go sell merchandise for her in the countryside. When I came back from the marketplace, I would carry two drums of water on my head, so heavy, to wash up for her. Then I’d go buy things to make dinner. And I couldn’t even eat the same food as her. If she ate rice, I only got cornmeal. I didn’t even wear the same sandals or dresses as her child. My dresses were made out of the scraps of cloth that were left over from what she sold in the marketplace. I couldn’t even sleep in a bed.”
Among the trials she recounted of her life as a restavèk, Helia Lajeunesse recounted this: “One day I was coming back from delivering food to the child of the house, which I had to carry on my head to her at school every day. There was a man holding a school under a coconut tree. He called to me, ‘Come be part of this school.’ I said, ‘No, I can’t, because when I go home my aunt will beat me.’ He said, ‘You should come.’ I went. Now when I went home, I said, ‘There was a man holding a school, so I attended today.’ The woman said, ‘What? You went to school?’ I said, ‘Yes and could you please give me a little pencil and a notebook?’ She asked me what I thought I was doing and started beating me.
“Poverty and misery made me not know how to read and write, or count in my head, until I was a grown-up.
“I escaped three times and went to different homes, four in all. But each time I suffered as badly or worse than before. I was abused so much. Misery was killing me.”
Still, many years later when Helia’s husband was murdered and she could no longer feed her five children, she said, “I was obliged to give four away, even though the youngest was only three years old. I only kept one who wasn’t even a year old then.”
Later, however, she went to a child rights training by the grassroots groups Commission of Women Victim to Victim (KOFAVIV). “That gave me consciousness and I went and got my children back. I said to myself, no matter what, I am going to keep my children. Now I’m with my four children [one of her five died in the earthquake]. I’m their mother, I’m their father.”
The system has long been widely socially accepted and its neutral-sounding name has rarely been replaced by the more appropriate term of slavery. But efforts are underway to change this.
Today, Tibebe and Helia are part of a group of restavèk survivors who are raising visibility of and opposition to the system. Their group, KOFAVIV, is among a small but growing child protection network. The two women have traveled as far as Washington, DC, to speak out. They conduct trainings in children’s rights and have helped organize two marches where thousands of women wore T-shirts saying, “I oppose the restavèk system. And you, what are you waiting for?” They are also part of a diverse global movement of people working to supplant commercialization and degradation of human life with dignity and rights.
For more on the work to end child servitude in Haiti and how you can help, see the upcoming blog post “A Second Slave Rebellion in Haiti,” on July 15.
1. Estimates on the number of child restavèk vary. The recent UNICEF report “Haiti 2010-2011: Mid-Year Review of 2010 Humanitarian Action Report,” estimates 225,000. Child right advocates typically put the number at 300,000.
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