Slavery. It is a word that has been associated with heavy chains dragging across fields of cotton, crowded and inhumane ships sailing across the Atlantic and the sound of a whip cracking in the air. It is seen as memories of a cruel history so detached from the present world. However, the historical bans on slavery haven’t erased all the remnants of forced labor from the world. In Haiti, a country liberated by slaves themselves, child slavery remains a reality for the hundreds of thousands affected.
Haiti’s traditional labor system entails sending children from poor rural families to work for wealthy urban families. These 225,000 Haitian children are called “restaveks,” which roughly translates to “to stay with” in Creole. For many impoverished parents, this arrangement lessens their financial burden – they no longer have to pay for their child’s cost of living. They also believe that in exchange for performing menial services and chores, their children will receive a quality education and higher standard of living when becoming restaveks.
However, today’s restavek system of labor has been so exploited by the wealthy that few restaveks receive the benefits they are promised. They are stripped of their basic rights and privileges, such as the ability to attend school, and are forced to work from early morning to late at night. Restavek girls – some as young as four years old – often take on the roles of overworked housewives – cooking for host families, cleaning their homes, and caring for the families’ younger children. Bound by the decisions that they did not make, restaveks lose their childhoods, families, and futures. They are forced to stay in their arrangement and are treated like property.
Many restaveks also suffer from abuse at the hands of their host families. Some face malnutrition as they receive little nourishment, while others are victims of physical abuse as they are relentlessly beaten. Several are also victims of rape and other forms of sexual abuse. As a result, many restaveks also struggle with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts.
The restavek labor system perpetuates a cycle of rampant abuse and violence. It deprives young children of their basic rights and exploits poorer Haitians. In order to end the restavek system, which is relatively unknown outside of Haiti, people must advocate for the rights of Haitian children. It’s time to demand liberty in a country with such a rich history of freedom and end the cycle of abuse once and for all.
Photo credit: Les Anderson/Upsplash