'Life Is Tough': Children in Domestic Labor in Haiti

Article # : 23645
Category : CULTURE > PEOPLES  
Issue Date : 1 / 2004   Print   Close
File Size : 2,725 Words Page : 156 
Author : Barbara McClatchie Andrews
Barbara McClatchie Andrews is a freelance photojournalist based in Canada.

         Nehemie is dressed in a red T-shirt and short skirt. Her clothes are faded but clean. Around her neck she wears a metal cross. She sits quietly, gathered into herself, a watchful expression on her face. She is small and, were it not for this sense of wariness, she would look younger than her thirteen years. Nehemie has come to talk to me about her life. It is not a happy story.
         Her account would be all-too-familiar to a quarter of a million young Haitian women, many much younger than she. Nehemie is a restavek, an undocumented, unpaid, unprotected, live-in child worker. A de facto slave.
         She gets up at 6:00 a.m. to light the cooking fire and prepare breakfast--most often a cornmeal gruel--for her "family." Afterward she accompanies the three younger of the family's six children to their school. The streets in Cité Soleil are not considered safe. The week before our interview, in the sort of occurrence for which the slum has a reputation, eighteen young men died in a gang war. Returning to the house, while the children are out, Nehemie picks up their used clothes and washes them in a basin of cold water placed on the floor. Later she will press the garments with an iron that has been heated with coals from the charcoal brazier on which she cooks.
         She washes the dishes in the same basin and sweeps the floor. This is a task she repeats many times a day because dust permeates everything in Port-au-Prince. Every day Nehemie must also walk several blocks to the water depot. There she will hoist a five-gallon can of water onto her head in order to carry it home. This should be enough for the household's daily supply, but if it runs out she will have to go back for more.
         On most days, because the family has no refrigerator, her "aunt" (what restaveks call their surrogate mother) sends her to buy perishables: stringy green beans, perhaps, and a bit of pork or chicken. She finds these things in the minimally stocked shops that front the garbage-strewn streets of her neighborhood. Nehemie likes these trips because--although play is foreign to her--she can steal a few minutes to be with friends.
         After school, Nehemie picks up the children and brings them home. Then she prepares the evening meal. She will not share this meal with the family. She always eats alone, usually at noon, sitting on the floor with a bowl of rice and pois (beans) or cornmeal mush. By 8:00 p.m. she is ready--and free--to go to sleep. Her bed is a sheet on the floor under the dinner table. Cockroaches and other pests run unchecked over the floor. Vermin, attracted by the festering garbage heaps and sewage ditches that overflow in the rainy season, are commonplace in Cité Soleil.
         Nehemie works seven days a week. On Sunday, while the family goes to church, she stays home. You can sense her loneliness. While her relationship with the younger children is warm, the older ones are often mean, pinching her on the arm or calling her stupid. She has biological brothers and sisters but isn't sure where they live. They are restaveks, too, and restavek owners discourage family interaction. The family she works for offers no comfort. Even when she is sick, Nehemie tells me she has to work. She doesn't remember ever being taken to see a doctor.
         She is treated differently from the family's biological children. If she works too slowly, her "aunt" hits her with her fist. Tantot, her "uncle," metes out the same treatment, but Nehemie tells me she is better off than her friend Merlande whose "uncle" fondles her. He does this with impunity because his wife beat Merlande when the restavek tried to tell her what was going on.
         When I look for anything positive Nehemie might have to say, she hesitates a moment. Finally she tells me, her voice barely above a whisper, "la vie est dure" (life is tough).
         The worst part, she continues, is that she has no parents. Nehemie cannot remember when she was sent to live in Cité Soleil. She knows her father died when she was a baby and her mother when she was about seven or eight. When I ask Nehemie to tell me about her mother, tears well up in her eyes. Nehemie remembers her, and the years they lived together, clearly. Nehemie also recalls that she went to school. When I ask her what she would like most to do with her life, her face lights up: She would like to be a teacher.
         'Unfortunate goods of the poor'
         Figures tell the story of why the institution of restavek labor came to be. Poverty is at the root of the problem. Eighty percent of Haiti's population lives below the poverty line, the average family income seldom exceeding $250 (U.S.) a year, a sum that must--on average--feed, clothe, and shelter four or five children. Most of the population is young (40 percent are under fifteen) and most Haitians die before fifty. Almost half of Haiti's families are headed by single women, and the burden of sustaining their families can be too great. Many families fall apart.
         Culture also validates this Haitian institution. A popular Creole proverb says: ti moun seyen malere ("children are the unfortunate goods of the poor"). Children become "goods" in that they are a negotiable commodity that can be exploited or sold. They are "unfortunate" in that Haitians believe that any child who can turn a family's fortune around has the obligation to do so. For Haitians, big families are an insurance policy.
         A health worker who comes regularly to Haiti tells me she finds few takers for prophylactics. Her revelation underlines another reason for large families: Haitian males, who don't like condoms, often have more than one partner. So they tend to have many children. But because they do not have the means, and there is no law with teeth to force them, many of them don't make good on their responsibilities to these children. Consequently, women--usually hamstrung by having too many children and no education--survive by giving their children away. Girls rarely scavenge on the streets like their brothers, but are more sought after as servants than the boys. So, it is the girls who have to go first.
         Although restaveks are theoretically registered with the government, there are no reliable figures on their distribution. Logic might suggest they would be the "goods" of Haiti's bourgeoisie, the 4 percent whose fortune has come from vast sugar or coffee plantations or from political power turned to their advantage. But rich Haitians can afford to pay a servant and do so to avoid international censure.
         Nor are these children exclusively the property of Haiti's small middle class, another 16 percent of the population. Instead, restaveks often become the property of those who, like themselves, are poor. Some are so poor they can claim nothing more than a patch of pavement where they survive by preparing and selling street food.
         Restaveks are victims of a system in which yesterday's slaves are enslaving their own. There is a shack in Soif Jeremie, the city dump, where street children shelter at night, sleeping stacked upon one another like so much kindling. Their location is no secret to unscrupulous vendors. Homeless children are liable to be kidnapped as they sleep and sold to "employers" at $50 (Haitian) a head.
         The majority of restaveks, however, are the victims of domestic economics. Their parents undoubtedly have told themselves that the family to whom they entrust the child--one which often lives in the capital, possibly far from their home--is acting out of some degree of goodwill. Their daughter will at least be fed and clothed and maybe even sent to school. Unfortunately, reality does not always bear out their hopes.
         For the poor, clothing is all that stands between them and the rest of the world. It is part of their identity. That is why women charcoal vendors refused to be photographed when I asked them: they wanted to be seen in clothes that were clean and pressed. Yet of the dozens of restaveks I interviewed, only one had ever been given new clothes. Instead they wear pepe, secondhand garments that look thirdhand to a Western eye. Their only toys might be a bottle cap, a cardboard box, a scrap of cloth, even a spent lightbulb. And only two of the restaveks I interviewed went to school, both with the support of foreign aid workers. I'm told that some restaveks, who were both clever and determined, had actually learned to read and write by surreptitiously observing the family's children as they were doing homework.
         The loss of their childhood is matched by the physical suffering so many restaveks endure. The work these children do compromises their health. Lifting heavy weights often damages their spines. Doctors tell me restaveks typically suffer from chronic respiratory and skin conditions that have gone untreated, and that malnutrition leaves them exhausted. These children are also at risk as they deal with charcoal stoves, where pots of boiling water or cooking oil are accidents waiting to happen.
         Worse yet, sometimes "accidents" are not accidents at all. An American social worker, who has spent years in Haiti, told me of restaveks with second-degree burns caused by their owners deliberately pouring boiling water on them. Another common story is that the host family's biological children have learned, by the time they are teenagers, that they can abuse restaveks with impunity. Sadly, they often do.
         One night, at the Hospice St. Joseph, a Catholic clinic and guesthouse, the screams of a child kept me awake. I learned later that she had been beaten with the medieval rigoise (a sort of cat-o'-nine-tails made of knotted, foot-long leather strips), a common disciplinary tool in Haiti. Sister Kay, who has worked in Haiti for decades, told me that although the hospice calls the police, their visits are perfunctory. Police--if they don't actively collaborate in punishing a recalcitrant child--generally turn a blind eye. Volunteers who work with restaveks revealed that sexual abuse is commonplace: sometimes these children are expected to initiate the family's males.
         An American who promotes agricultural projects in Verette told me that one Christmas he discovered the neighbors' seven-year-old restavek home alone. The family had gone off to celebrate the holiday, leaving her nothing but bread and water. Denied empathy or affection by their surrogate family, these restaveks seek comfort through contact with their biological families; and although they are beaten if caught, many risk punishment just to spend a few hours with a mother, a brother, a sister. It comes as no surprise to learn that by the time restaveks become young men and women, most lack self-esteem and can no longer envision a different way of life. Many are resigned to their "families" for life.
         'Nowhere else to go'
         All too often, the story of restaveks ends there, but it would be inaccurate not to paint the other part of the picture. The institution is old, perhaps dating to the earliest days of post-independence Haiti. When the slaves were made free, they either became underpaid workers on Haiti's plantations or joined the ranks of the unemployed. This became a situation which years of exploitative governments have not changed. The institution may have been inspired by the French au pair model, in which a less fortunate child becomes part of a more fortunate family whom she serves as a nanny.
         It is clear that living with a restavek and living as a restavek are two distinct experiences. Implicit in the term restavek (to "stay with") is the assumption that the child is surely not a servant, and certainly not a slave, but rather someone with a different status, that of a long-term guest, perhaps, who will pitch in when there are chores to do. It is an institution that has its credible defenders. Among them is Monique, a middle-class Haitian. She and her husband own a guesthouse near Cap Haitien where they live with three children and Chantelle, a young woman who cooks and cleans for them. Chantelle is a restavek, one of several whom Monique has taken in over the years.
         When Monique's children sit down for meals, so does Chantelle. Monique's children go to school in the morning, and Chantelle attends classes too, but in the afternoon (so that she can do housework in their absence). When she is sick, Monique looks after her, taking her to the local clinic if need be. Monique is careful to observe important occasions, a child's baptism, for example, or confirmation; when one of her restaveks married, Monique even organized and paid for her wedding. Pictures of that wedding are part of her family album.
         Still, although Monique insists that restaveks are equal, there are subtle ways in which her children are simply more equal. They do not carry water on their heads, and while Chantelle is in the kitchen preparing dinner or learning a new recipe, they are dancing to salsa or watching television. Monique, watching Chantelle work, makes an accurate psychological observation, commenting: "She knows too much." A sadness clouds her face, for she is a kind woman and she has figured out that, because they are fearful of the consequences of making a mistake, restaveks are always serious in their work.
         As for not being slaves, while legally this is true, Monique herself has pointed out that Chantelle--like all restaveks--has "nowhere else to go." The child is not, in reality, free.
         'Behind mountains, more mountains'
         Those who work in Haiti's hundreds of aid agencies, religious and secular, governmental and nongovernmental, speculate endlessly on the problems and future of Haiti. For restaveks, it is not sunny.
         There are shelters--generally nongovernmental--such as Michael Brewer's Family
         Circle for street boys, many of whom are former restaveks. The stories of his sixty-odd children are bleak: beaten systematically, they have run away and Brewer finds them living on the street too demoralized even to beg. But there are limits to the number he can look after. Because funds are, at best, erratic, there are days when food and even the water run out.
         There are shelters for girls, too, generally Catholic, small, and low-profile. The problem is that they are only a temporary remedy. Although Haiti has some 950 orphanages, they are not orphanages in the conventional sense, in that adoption is a rare event. Last year, for example, fewer than a hundred Americans (of many more who were hopeful) were allowed to adopt Haitian children.
         It would seem that what Haiti needs is not more handouts and stopgap measures but a government plan and action. I met with Michelle Korshan, the president's foreign press liaison, to find out what--if anything--the government has done since Aristide took over three years ago. She told me that it has just rescinded the law that permitted child labor and has initiated programs to retrain social service workers--and the police--on appropriate intervention and follow-up (modeled on practices in the United States).
         I knew there were already laws obliging those who house restaveks to register them, send them to school for four hours a day, and provide regular medical checkups. So why, I wondered, would yet more laws be effective? Korshan replied that information concerning the change had been broadcast on radio and television and that there is a hotline for children, even in rural areas. She added, with some satisfaction, that--although she had no numbers--the hotline is active. But in Haiti there are only forty-one radios per one thousand inhabitants, and a tenth as many televisions. No one whom I asked knew of the new laws. Moreover, to make a call, you have to buy a phone card, read instructions, and then find a working phone. It is hard to imagine a penniless, illiterate child, one with a well-honed fear of adults, undertaking these steps.
         Then, too, the program she described seems incomplete. When I asked Korshan what they have in mind for newly liberated restaveks, she was vague. "I think there is a structure, a framework, and a will," she replied, admitting, "but there are no funds."
         A Haitian proverb says deye mon gen mon ("behind mountains, more mountains"), and so it seems with the issue of the restavek children. The problem is socially complex and economically challenging. With each apparent solution, a new problem seems to arise. While the problem solvers struggle with the uphill battle, Haiti's restavek children remain children at risk.