At a glance: Haiti

UNICEF and partners help child domestic workers in Haiti regain their rights

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© UNICEF/ HQ05-1960/LeMoyne
A 12-year-old girl – formerly a ‘restavek’, or unpaid child domestic – holds a book in the library of a shelter for vulnerable and exploited children in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

By Viviana Fernandez and Linda Tom

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 20 April 2007 – Andre does not know his real name nor how old he is. His mother died when he was young and he says he was sent to work for another family because his father was unable to take care of him.

Children in domestic service, known as ‘restaveks’ (meaning ‘staying with’ in Creole), are commonly found in Haiti. There are an estimated 173,000 Haitian children like Andre, representing over 8 per cent of children between 5 and 17 years of age.

Most children in domestic service come from the countryside and are sent to live with other families in the hope of a better life.

Economic hardship

In reality, the move often lands children in a worse situation. The first to wake up and last to go to bed, restavek children spend their days doing gruelling housework.

Besides working without pay, Andre says he was not provided with basic necessities like clothes and shoes and was forced to sleep on the floor. He recalls how his ‘host mother’ would spit on the ground and tell him he had to finish an errand before the saliva dried.

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© UNICEF HAITI/2007/Fernandez
This 15-year-old boy in Haiti has been a domestic worker for the past four years.

Andre was often severely beaten, especially after he tried to run away. He was forbidden to look people in the eyes. Isolated and ridiculed, he had only one friend – another restavek he met after hearing the boy being beaten in a house nearby.

Vulnerable to exploitation

The exploitation of children in domestic service is compounded by economic hardship in Haiti, with many of the receiving families living in poverty themselves. Over half of the population lives below the $1-a-day poverty line, and 76 per cent live on less than $2 a day.

In 1994, Haiti ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, without adequate protection, children in domestic service remain vulnerable to violence, exploitation and abuse.

“Restavek children are deprived of the most basic child rights – the right to be cared for by their parents, the right to play, the right to express themselves and the right to be free from physical and sexual abuse,” declared UNICEF Haiti’s Chief of Child Protection, Njanja Fassu.

Education and psychosocial support

Psychosocial care and support for children in domestic service is a priority of UNICEF in Haiti. Most restaveks are not able to exert their rights or even voice their needs.

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© UNICEF/HQ05-1957/LeMoyne
Children stand amid laundry hanging to dry in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where extreme poverty fuels the child domestic worker market, depriving young people of basic rights.

Jean-David (not his real name), was 11 when he left his family home. When asked what childhood activities he enjoys, Jean-David responds timidly, “I like cleaning.”

“We need to work on de-programming. Children are used to leaving a room when a host family member walks in,” says Director Wenés Jeanty of Foyer Maurice Sixto, a UNICEF-supported centre for children in domestic service. “The child domestic’s opinion doesn’t count and that’s why they rarely speak. Here we try to change this behaviour; we try to teach them how to relate to others and to recover their self-esteem.”

Child domestic workers feel further isolation from the social stigma of being a restavek. Andre, who finally escaped his abusive host family with the help of his brother, has since gone back to school. “I can’t talk about my experiences to my classmates or anyone. I don’t want anyone to know,” he confides.

Reunification with parents

The Foyer Maurice Sixto programme emphasizes the importance of reuniting children with their biological families. In the worst cases, the centre finds alternative host families.

Jean-David recently visited his mother through a UNICEF-supported initiative that seeks to reunite restavek children with their families. “It had been four years since I hadn’t seen my mother, so it was very exciting,” he recalls. “I was surprised by the house – it was smaller.”

Separated for as long as 10 years from their parents, some restavek children return home only to discover that their parents have died.

UNICEF also supports programmes that work with host families to improve the quality of life for children in domestic service. Jean-David says he has a good relationship with his host family because they allow him to go to the Foyer Maurice Sixto centre every day. Learning to read and write has changed his life, he says, adding that he feels good at the centre “because here all children are the same.”


 

 

Audio

19 April 2007:
UNICEF Haiti Child Protection Officer Bertrand Njanja-Fassu speaks to UNICEF Radio about children working as domestic servants.
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