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HUMAN RIGHTS -
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Servitude's chains steal childhoods

Posted in the database on Thursday, June 02nd, 2005 @ 11:46:55 MST (4379 views)
by Gary Marx    Chicago Tribune  

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Each day, 13-year-old Claudia Lundi wakes at 4 a.m. and begins cooking, sweeping, fetching water and doing other household chores that last until well after sunset.

She sleeps on the concrete floor cushioned by a pile of clothing and eats sparingly, alone, in the kitchen.

"If I don't finish my work they will beat me up," said Claudia, picking nervously at her fingernails. "They beat me with a whip all over my body."

Born in the southwestern city of Jeremie, Claudia has been working as a servant for five years. She is one of tens of thousands of Haitian children sent by their impoverished parents to work in the homes of relatives or strangers for nothing but room and board.

Known in Haiti as "restaveks," from the French phrase rester avec--to stay with--the children in such conditions are growing in number as Haiti's crisis deepens 15 months after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, according to social workers and experts.

As heavily armed pro-Aristide gangs battle United Nations peacekeeping forces and threaten elections scheduled for the fall, there are few signs of progress in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country. Foreign donors have yet to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in promised assistance. Massive work projects to clean irrigation ditches and repair schools remain on the drawing board in a country where most residents earn less than a dollar a day.

With too many mouths to feed, many rural Haitians dispatch their children--mostly girls--to families in Port-au-Prince that are only slightly better off, unknowingly consigning those as young as 5 to a life of labor and abuse.

Most restaveks never attend school and suffer malnutrition. They carry emotional scars from being beaten with electrical cords, leather belts and other objects. Some children are sexually abused.

"I wake up in the middle of the night and the kids are screaming," said Rev. Pierre St. Vistal, who runs a shelter for 60 former restaveks in the Port-au-Prince slum of Cite de Dieu, or City of God.

"Sometimes they scream because they are scared of people coming back to fetch them," he said. "They also scream because they miss their parents."

Claudia and other restaveks say they would like to return to their parents, but don't have money for bus fare or have been away so long they don't know how to get home.

`They beat me up'

Natasha Jeune, a 13-year-old restavek from the central plateau town of Mirebalais, said she doesn't recall the last time she saw her parents. A relative picked her up and took Natasha to live with her and her family in Port-au-Prince when Natasha was about 5 years old.

Her eyes cast downward, Natasha described a typical, 16-hour workday in which she does everything from serving food to washing clothes to emptying containers full of excrement to lugging water to the house.

"Sometimes when I carry a bucket of water it's too heavy and I fall and the bucket breaks," Natasha said in a soft voice. "They beat me up."

Natasha said she is only fed once a day and is forced to eat on the floor. Unlike her host family members who sleep on beds, Natasha spends the night on the ground wrapped in a thin bedspread.

"Life should not be like this, but I have no choice," said Natasha. "I would like to go somewhere else and have a normal childhood."

Many restaveks who flee servitude end up among the hordes of street children working odd jobs or begging and stealing to survive. One of them is Junior Delusa, a 17-year-old who lives in the Champs de Mars area adjacent to Haiti's gleaming National Palace.

Delusa said he prefers life on the streets to life as a restavek, where his host family was verbally abusive.

"They started humiliating me," said Delusa, who washes cars at a crowded downtown intersection. "They said, `Don't you see who you are? You are just a restavek.' Life was unbearable."

Jean-Yves Georges, director general of Haiti's Ministry of Social Affairs, said the government is carrying out a radio and television campaign to educate Haitians against using restaveks.

Yet, he said the practice would likely continue as long as Haiti is desperately poor.

Some experts attribute the mistreatment of restaveks to the widespread acceptance of corporal punishment in Haiti, along with the fact that Haitian children often are treated as second-class citizens.

Critics also say the Haitian government has failed to enforce a law passed in 2001 that prohibits the inhumane treatment of children.

"What's the purpose of a law outlawing unpaid domestic servants if the practice continues and if they are subject to abuse?" asked Luz Angela Melo, administrator of UNICEF's protection program in Haiti. "It doesn't provide any real solution."

173,000 child servants

UNICEF estimates there are 173,000 restaveks in Haiti, though Melo cautioned that accurate figures are difficult to find because it's a hidden practice.

Experts say the origins of unpaid child domestic labor date to the late 19th Century when Haitians began migrating from the countryside to Port-au-Prince seeking a better life.

Some children found work among wealthy families, where they lived with their employers and developed a strong personal bond that minimized abuse.

Over time, as refrigerators and other household appliances became more common, Haiti's elite needed fewer domestic workers. Restaveks began working for middle-class families and, increasingly, for the poor.

Today, most restaveks end up with families in Cite Soleil, La Saline and other Port-au-Prince shantytowns characterized by flimsy tin and plywood shacks, rivulets of raw sewage and violent street gangs.

"Peasant parents have the false notion that if you live in the city, you are better off," said Jean Lherisson, an expert on restaveks and director of the non-profit group Haiti Solidarity International.

"The truth is that these are people as miserable from an economic point of view as the parents of the kids," he said.

While the Haitian government lacks the resources to help restaveks, a handful of private groups are providing a small number of them with shelter, food and schooling.

Claudia and Natasha are among 300 restaveks who spend a few hours each day at the Maurice Sixto shelter, a Swiss-funded refuge in Port-au-Prince's sprawling Carrefour neighborhood.

Marie Pasal Douyan, a social worker at the shelter, said many of the children are alternatively aggressive and withdrawn after years of neglect and abuse.

"They feel lost and abandoned," she said.

Yet, some parents say they have no choice but to give up their children.

Sitting alone in a downtown park, Gracilia Alexandre said she had just dropped off her 12-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter at their uncle's house unannounced because she could no longer take care of them.

Alexandre said her husband was killed in a robbery two years ago and she has been unable to find a job. She expects the uncle to force the children to work for their food and shelter.

"I don't think they are going to be treated well," said Alexandre, 26. "It was painful for me to make that decision."



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