PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – In his first few days as a live-in servant with an affluent family, 11-year-old Dieusibon Delci thought he had found paradise. Though he slept on the floor and worked from dawn to late evening, for the first time in his life he had enough to eat.
Then the matron of the house began hitting him on the head with hot, cast-iron pans to make him work harder. When he nodded off one day while washing dishes, she slammed a pot filled with boiling oil on his left hand, smashing his fingers.
”She kept beating me and telling me to work more,” said Dieusibon, whose left fingers are fused at the knuckles and whose temple is flat and shiny from repeated blows.
After two years of abuse, Dieusibon ran away from his keepers. But about one in 10 children, most of them from impoverished families, continues to work for nothing but room and board in the homes of relatives or strangers.
Haitians call the children restaveks or restavecs, a Creole term from the French phrase rester avec[to stay with]. Human rights and labor organizations call them slaves.
”At the least, most of these children don’t receive the schooling or care that they should,” said Merrie Archer, a senior policy associate for the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, who recently coauthored a blistering report on the restavek phenomenon.” And many are subjected to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.”
Haitians, particularly in the countryside, have sent their children to live and work with wealthier families since the 18th-century colonial era. But with four-fifths of the country’s 8 million people struggling to survive on less than a dollar a day, the practice continues to flourish. It’s a bitter irony to many observers, given that two centuries ago Haitian slaves ousted the French and established the world’s first black republic.
”The very slaves who fought for independence wanted to live as their former masters had, so they took the children of those who were even poorer and enslaved them,” said Jean-Robert Cadet, a teacher at the University of Cincinnati whose 1998 memoir, ”Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American,” helped focus attention on the issue.
As a restavek three decades ago, Cadet said, his employer beat him with the kind of leather whip that the French had used on slaves.” To be a restavec is to be an untouchable, the ultimate have-not in a society of have-nots,” Cadet said.
About 300,000 children who are 14 or younger work as restaveks, and a fifth of those are younger than 12, according to the National Coalition on Haitian Rights. The group’s report, like many studies, accuses Haitian authorities of doing little to combat the problem. Officials counter that they are doing the best they can.
Many restaveks work for Haitian families who aren’t wealthy enough to pay for servants and who often aren’t much better off than the children’s parents. Still, many Haitians believe the children will fare better than at home.
”The lady who took them told me she’d treat them well,” said Rosanna Saint-Hilaire, a widow who in the past six years has sold two of her nine children to a restaurant owner in Port-au-Prince for the equivalent of $60 each. The children, both boys, were 11 and 8 years old when she sold them.
”Anyway,” she added, her lips tightening, ”I had to sell them because otherwise, I had no way to feed the rest of my children.” Saint-Hilaire said she sold her older son for money to find a new home after her shack in Cité Soleil, one of Port-au-Prince’s worst squatter slums, was burned down in a riot.
She now lives in the worst part of another slum, Waph Jeremie, a mile from main roads along paths overflowing with sewage and next to a massive dump where naked children crawl through sooty garbage, scrounging for food.
Meanwhile, Saint-Hilaire’s two restavek sons said they had been forced to work 19-hour days scrubbing and lugging 25-pound jugs of water at the restaurant before they fled. Val Michelet, 17, ran away three years ago and helped his brother, Robinson Joseph, 11, escape this year. They now live at Haitian Street Kids, a shelter for homeless boys in Port-au-Prince.
Many restaveks see their parents rarely, if ever, specialists say. Since they ran away, Val and Robinson have visited their mother a few times a month. But on a recent reunion, the contact was strained.
Restaveks’ employers are almost never prosecuted for abuse, according to many children’s advocates. ”The laws are so weak and poorly enforced, they’re useless,” said Michael Brewer, the director of Haitian Street Kids.
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former parish priest, last year called the restavek phenomenon ”one of the cancers on our social body in Haiti that keep democracy from growing.”
Still, Haitian law lets children work as domestics from age 12 and does not require them to be paid until they are 15. A government hot line to report abuses against restaveks and other children is understaffed, making follow-ups on complaints minimal.
Government officials said they are working on education and rural development projects and have started a program to help restaveks return to their families.
However, authorities say their efforts are hamstrung by a US-led blockade of about $500 million in foreign aid earmarked for Haiti – about 1 1/2 times the annual budget.
Many restaveks flee their conditions, contributing to the nation’s burgeoning population of street children. Specialists say those who are lucky enough to end up in shelters often are scarred emotionally as well as physically.
This story ran on page A10 of the Boston Globe on 12/29/2002.