UNICEF aids restavek victims of abuse and exploitation in Haiti
By Samuel Grumiau
Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 31 January 2012 – In 2007, 10-year-old Larissa Saint-Claire (NAME CHANGED) lived quietly with her parents in Beaumont, in southwest Haiti, when a visit from one of her sisters changed her life.
"At first I was happy to see her,” recalled Larissa. “I quickly became disillusioned because in reality she was telling us about an acquaintance who she suggested I go to live with in Port-au-Prince. My sister said that this woman would put me in school, offer me some nice clothes, and take good care of me."
The proposal divided the family. Larissa had no desire to leave her parents, and her father did not want her to go. But her mother was convinced it was a unique opportunity for her daughter to go to school, something her parents could not afford.
"I left the next day with my sister. My parents cried. I told my father I did not know when I would come back," Larissa said.
Unknowingly, Larissa was trading the safety of her home for the life of a ‘restavek’, a child entrusted to the care of a wealthier family. Restaveks – which in Creole means ‘stay with’ – are part of a deeply-embedded Haitian tradition designed to help poor children and families. In principle, the children are cared for as family members and are enrolled in school in exchange for small services.
But in reality, children are often forced to work as domestic servants, labouring around the clock without pay, frequently subjected to abuse by their caretakers. They are generally not permitted to attend school, and lack basic necessities such as shoes. There are around 225,000 restaveks in Haiti, although exact numbers are almost impossible to determine given the informal nature of the arrangement. Most come from the countryside and are sent to live with families both in Haiti and in the Dominican Republic.
Exploited and abused
Fetching water from a pump down the street was her most difficult chore. "I had to go in the morning, and often a second time in the afternoon. I was whipped if there was no more water,” she said. “I carried water in a large bucket and a bottle. Weight gave me some pain in the head and chest.”
At the market, she made friends with other restaveks, and talked with them about the abuse she had suffered.
"They said I should ask the woman to send me back to my parents, but again I received the whip for suggesting that,” Larissa said. “I had no way of contacting my parents.”
After three years, Larissa built up the courage to leave.
“I escaped from the house one night, and I jumped in the first tap-tap [taxi],” she said. “I was in tears. I had no money. Passengers asked me what was happening. They took me to the police."
The police contacted IBESR – the Institute of Social Welfare and Research – a government agency that, with UNICEF assistance, helps reintegrate children like Larissa back into their families. IBESR found temporary shelter for Larissa while she waits to be reunited with her family.
Reuniting restaveks with their families
UNICEF is also providing support to institutions taking temporary care of child victims of domestic abuse and trafficking, to ensure these children receive appropriate psychosocial support.
"To this day, I still think often about these years of suffering. At night in my dreams, I see my mother’s house. I definitely want to go back,” Larissa said.
But memories of hardship have crowded out her memories of a happier childhood – and even the name of the town where her family lives.
UNICEF and its partners are working to fill in these gaps and locate her family so she can finally go home.