Haiti’s Dirty Little Secret: the Problem of Child Slavery

By: COHA Research Associate Michale Sheckleford
  • Child slavery is endemic in a number of developing nations and must be addressed at the upcoming Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Havana

In Haiti, the institution of slavery survives in the form of restavec, a system of forced child labour. Restavec is the Haitian Creole term meaning “stay with” and has its origins in the legacy of slavery, the sharply hierarchical class structure and the grinding poverty of Haiti’s masses. Haiti has the dubious distinction of being the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, with a malnutrition rate of 56 percent. Additionally, Haiti is also a country with a distinctively uneven distribution of income, where approximately 45 percent of the country’s wealth is owned by one percent of the population.

As a result of decades of economic stagnation, irresponsible rule and political corruption, over 70 percent of the population lives in wrenching poverty. The conditions are so severe that many parents send their children away to live in the homes of the wealthier families in the usually vain hope that they will receive proper clothing and formal education. Public education is free, but the costs of uniforms, textbooks as well as other school supplies are beyond the reach of most struggling parents. As a result, only 65 percent of the elementary-school-aged children are enrolled in Haiti’s primary schools, and of this number, only 35 percent will graduate. At the secondary level, this picture becomes even more dismal, as the number of students enrolled drops to 20 percent. Even though most Haitians highly esteem education, such conditions have forced parents to send their children to work for more privileged families in a situation akin to slavery. Tragically, Haiti lacks the ability to enforce current legislation prohibiting child labour. It is thus imperative for the international community to redouble its efforts to help Haiti rid itself of this heinous exploitation of children.

The practice of child slavery is not limited to Haiti. Rather, under various guises, there are millions of children working in similar conditions throughout the developing world. This issue begs to be placed on the agenda of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Havana, where immediate action regarding this practice should be called upon.

The Incidence and Horrors of Child Labour in Haiti
According to the Haitian government, there are about 90,000 to 120,000 children in bondage, but UNICEF estimates significantly larger numbers, ranging from 250,000 to 300,000. Very little child labour is used in the formal sectors of the country and is largely confined to the informal underbelly of the economy and the domestic sphere. However, desperate rural families bring their children into Port-Au-Prince and other urban areas to work as domestics in the homes of well-to-do families, who ostensibly should be providing them with schooling in return. However, these children often perform the most wretched of tasks that hired help refuse to do, such as emptying bedpans and walking for miles fetching water. They are also forced to work very long hours without compensation and are harshly brutalized for even the slightest mistake or neglect of a duty. They are frequently subject to severe physical abuse, as their owners often beat them mercilessly with cowhide switches manufactured especially for that purpose, for the most minor of infractions. These children are exposed to insensible acts of violence, such as one girl who was set ablaze because allegedly her employers wanted to find out if hairspray was flammable.

Over 70 percent of the restavecs are girls, most of whom range from as young as 3 to 15 years of age. Many of them are virtually enslaved by individuals who are situated in only slightly better circumstances, who otherwise could not afford to hire domestics. In a class-based society such as Haiti, the ownership of a restavec elevates one a few rungs on the social ladder. Restavecs are often made to sleep on the floor, usually under a table, on a pile of rags or on a piece of dirty cardboard outside of the family’s home. Moreover, they are easily identified on the streets by their tattered clothing. It is devastatingly common for young, female restavecs to be subjected to repeated rape by male members of the “host family.” When their owners have no further use for them, these children are often thrust out onto the streets after being severely beaten or sexually abused. Since these children have not received the education promised by their “hosts,” they have little opportunity to improve their situation at the close of their servitude.

The Apathy of the International Community
Without the capacity and the funding to enforce the labour laws, the deeply entrenched practice of child slavery will continue to plague Haitian society. Haiti has undergone decades of political instability and governmental corruption, in addition to stringent economic sanctions. Moreover, Haiti’s dismal economic situation continues to fuel the restavec practice. Since 2000, the current Bush administration has stood in the way of over $500 million in much-needed loans from international financial organizations to the Haitian government, in order to express its displeasure at Aristide’s democratically-elected government. Included in this figure was a loan package of $146 million from the Inter-American Development Bank aimed at improving healthcare, access to sanitary water supplies and education, all of which could have improved the desperate situation facing Haiti’s children.

The Challenge to the International Community
Child slavery is so ingrained in the national psyche that many Haitians do not feel that the practice is particularly odious. In a society sharply divided by colour and class, many of those who occupy the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder are not considered fully human and are thus not accorded basic human rights, especially the restavecs. Given Haiti’s current lack of state capacity, it is doubtful that the government will make any significant inroads on this social blight for years to come, especially in light of the privileged classes’ opposition to any justice measures designed to uplift Haiti’s poor.
Due to Haitian society’s silent acceptance of this deplorable practice, there needs to be increased media attention and international condemnation of the restavec system to bring this dirty little secret to light. The U.S, which strategically fabricated and then indignantly denounced human trafficking in Venezuela, is suspiciously quiet when it comes to the woeful plight of Haiti, over which it has unique stewardship. Instead of manipulating the issue of human trafficking to suit its diplomatic goals, or ignoring it altogether, it is imperative that the international community take serious action to eliminate the existence of child slavery worldwide.