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The Plight of Haiti’s “Orphans”: Looking Beyond the US Missionary Case

April 4, 2010
Haitian orphans

Haitian children in a Port-au-Prince orphanage/ Eduardo Munoz for Reuters

It’s been about three months since the devastating earthquake in Haiti killed over 200,000 people and left a million homeless. The catastrophic problems facing the nation in the wake of the tragedy have been well-documented in the media. One incident that garnered a lot of attention was the arrest of a group of US missionaries who were charged with kidnapping for attempting to take 33 Haitian children to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic without proper authorization. After the group’s arrest two revelations kept the story fresh in the news cycle. Though the ten missionaries originally claimed all the children were orphans, investigators soon discovered that the children in fact had parents who willingly sent them with the missionaries in hopes that they would have a better life in the DR. Later, a man named Jorge Puello who had falsely presented himself as a lawyer and advised the missionaries after their arrest was himself arrested—turns out he has long been wanted by Salvadorian authorities on sex trafficking charges.

The last of the missionaries were released earlier this month and the children were returned to their parents, but the underlying issues reflected in the story will haunt Haiti for a long time. To those familiar with Haiti’s struggles even before the earthquake, neither the fact that the so-called “orphans” were given away by parents nor the involvement of a sex trafficker will come as a surprise. In a country mired in poverty, where half the population is under the age of 18 and contraceptive use stands at only 25-33%, many families have more children than they can afford to care for. As a result, many Haitian children fall victim to traffickers who kidnap or promise good jobs out of the country and then force children into sex work or labor, or else many children become slaves in their own country.

A cultural practice has developed in Haiti where poor (mostly rural) parents send children to live with wealthier (mostly urban) families to work as domestic servants. In theory these children, known as restaveks (“lives with others” in Creole) are supposed to receive adequate food, shelter, clothing, and access to education from their host families—and some of them do. Others, however, are treated as slaves, beaten or sexually assaulted and forced to work constantly while receiving almost nothing in return.

This video from the Pulitzer Center presents the child labor problem in the words of restaveks, parents, and local activists.

Katie Paul at Newsweek describes the life of one restavek:

The days after the earthquake brought joyous reunions for some families. Others faced the grim realization that they’d been suddenly robbed of parents, children, or siblings. For 9-year-old Manuchka, there was neither. Manuchka is a restavek, a child servant who has done domestic chores for two sisters and their families since she was 6. Since she was 4, her life has consisted of fetching water, going to market, and scrubbing laundry. Sometimes, she was beaten by her caretakers. After the earthquake, she was denied food. So when she and her host families arrived at a campground for Haitians displaced by the disaster, she asked an aid worker to let her stay with him. With plans to leave Port-au-Prince and little use for a restavek anymore, the sisters said he could have her.

Slavery—which ended with independence in 1804—is illegal in Haiti. And technically restavek children are not slaves. But the irony seems lost on restavek’s perpetrators; some 225,000 children are living as indentured servants in the first black republic born out of slavery’s broken shackles. And, even after the earthquake, restavek is likely to live on.

As Paul later points out, the restavek system evolved from a cultural emphasis on extended family networks and the practice of children sharing the burden of labor among relatives. Today families give away their children with the best of intentions, usually unaware of the conditions the children may face in their new homes. In some cases the children actually end up with families even poorer than their own. Paul also reports that girls are more often sent into servitude than boys; girls comprise over two-thirds of the restavek population.

The restavek problem is compounded by the lack of aid for struggling families or a quality adoption system. In fact, some activists point to Haiti’s orphanages as part of the problem because some have been linked to trafficking. In the wake of the earthquake UNICEF is doing all it can to keep lost or abandoned children out of orphanages, instead trying to reunite families by registering children in a database and searching for their parents or other relatives who could care for them. In the meantime they place the children with caretakers in their communities rather than handing them over to wealthy families who might treat them as restaveks.

Katie Paul writes that the earthquake will definitely shake up the restavek system but it remains to be seen whether change will be for the better or for worse. With Port-au-Prince in shambles and people migrating to rural areas, the demand for restavek labor may decrease—but many restaveks who are now abandoned and children who are orphaned by the quake will end up on the streets.

To find out how you can help, read this overview of the Jean R. Cadet Restavek Foundation from Change.org and check out Colleen’s earlier suggestions here at GAB for donating to help Haiti.

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