By MP Nunan
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 3 November 2010 – For the children at Foyer l’Escale, a UNICEF-supported children’s shelter, performance is a form of therapy.
|VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent MP Nunan reports on the reintegration of unaccompanied 'restavek' children with their families in post-earthquake Haiti. Watch in RealPlayer|
Adolescent girls in traditional costumes come out on a small stage to swirl and sashay to a drumbeat in Haitian style. They’re accompanied at times by some of the youngest children, also residents of the shelter, serving as back-up dancers.
But the song and dance numbers are punctuated by a certain pathos, as the children take turns at the microphone to tell their stories. Most of the 42 residents now living at Foyer l’Escale are former ‘restaveks’ – from the French ‘rester avec’ or ‘to stay with’ – a term describing children who were given away by their parents to serve as unpaid domestic servants.
Children speak out
“While they were slapping me, they were cherishing their kids,” says a teenage girl. “The housework was mine. Going to the market was mine. Washing and cooking were all my mine. Not going to school – that was me. Even being beaten by someone – that was me.”
|An adolescent girl walks to her bed in a tent shared with other children at the Foyer l’Escale Interim Care Centre in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The centre houses unaccompanied children who were separated from their families in the Haiti earthquake.|
A teenage boy recalls the day when he and his sister were trafficked to the Dominican Republic.
“This day was a tragedy for me. Dominican soldiers grabbed us by the shirt. They beat us,” he says. “When we arrived there, they made us work as hard as a horse without getting paid. And they wanted to rape my sister and force her into prostitution.”
Exploitation and abuse
UNICEF estimates that there are 250, 000 children in Haiti serving as restaveks.
The phenomenon is widely believed to have started as a means for poor parents to give their children a better life.
|A family-reunification worker from Heartland Alliance, a UNICEF-supported NGO, speaks with a child’s interim caretaker at a paediatric hospital in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.|
“Usually these were children coming from the rural areas who were brought to rich families,” explains UNICEF Representative in Haiti Françoise Gruloons-Ackermans. “They were providing services to the families, but they were also given education and food and care. This was how it happened decades ago.”
But all that has changed – and restavek children now serve as unpaid domestic servants, or virtual slaves. “You can just imagine the abuse, the possibility of abuse, the potential of violence that can happen,” says Ms. Gruloos-Ackermans.
At Foyer l’Escale (or ‘Home Stopover’), the emphasis is on reintegrating restavek children with their parents, who often did not know they were placing them into abusive situations.
UNICEF also offers financial assistance to families – sometimes in the form of micro-grants for small businesses – so that they do not come under the same pressures to give a child up. Child-protection officers conduct a series of follow-up visits to these families to make sure their children are going to school and being cared for.
Before the sensitive step of reintegrating a child with his or her family, the parents are interviewed by Foyer l’Escale staffers to determine whether they truly want the child back. Ninety per cent of the time, they do.
Difficulties of child-rearing
But sometimes, the realities of raising a child in Haiti make that simply too hard.
“There was one case when the parents said, ‘No, I don’t want the child. I already have nine children. This girl is 13 or 14 now and she’s hitting puberty – I’m not interested in those sorts of problems,” says UNICEF Child Protection Officer Geslet Bordes.
In that case, the girl was welcomed into the home of her cousin. “Most of the parents would rather die than have their kids in an abusive situation,” says Mr. Bordes.
Earthquake in Haiti