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Restavèk No More: Eliminating Child Slavery in Haiti
A report by the National Coalition for Haitian Rights

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Executive Summary

The Haitian people are justly proud that their country was founded on the basis of a successful struggle against French colonialism and slavery. In less than two years, the country will celebrate 200 years of independence and trumpet its past achievements. Yet, slavery has not been completely eliminated from Haitian society. It survives through restavèk servitude.

A restavèk is a Haitian child who becomes a house slave when she is turned over by her parents to a family which agrees, in principle, to care for the child, provide schooling, food, shelter, and clothing in exchange for domestic labor. Neither the child’s nor the parents’ hopes are usually fulfilled. The restavèk instead spends her formative years isolated from parental love and care, and nurturing contact with siblings, deprived of schooling and subject to long days of work with no pay and living conditions inferior to those of the overseer’s family. She performs whatever services the overseer requires under a constant menace of physical and verbal abuse, often meted out as a matter of routine by members of the household.

Today in Haiti, an estimated one out of every ten children is a restavèk. These children are such a common part of the social fabric that rare is the Haitian who has not had some association with a restavèk. Some have given away a child or taken one in as a restavèk, or they know a family that has; others have been a restavèk themselves. This familiarity has affected the way most Haitians take these children for granted.

Haitians have done very little over the years to eliminate the restavèk system. Most activists do not see the restavèk system as a serious obstacle to developing a human rights culture. In particular, respect for the basic rights of the child is not seen as an obstacle to efforts aimed at developing better overall human relations and patterns of behavior. Rather than being seen as a single factor that influences the restavèk system, poverty continues to be used as a pretext to justify its acceptance and the corresponding lack of sustained effort to abolish it – particularly since simple economic solutions are not forthcoming.

The government of Haiti’s long-standing practice of investing little in programs and initiatives that promote good governance while embracing lofty goals and ideals designed to attract international handouts also permeates its response to the restavèk system, which it promotes in law and deeds even as it claims to do otherwise.

Haiti ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on December 29, 1994, and, in accordance with its obligations under the Convention, filed a report describing progress made in implementing the Convention. The government has essentially recognized its legal obligations under the Convention, but claims that slim resources have hindered efforts to protect children from abuse and to provide them with the care and support mandated by the Constitution and the Convention.

The government has established a hotline phone number for use by children and others to report abuses against children. Yet, little evidence exists that this hotline amounts to more than a symbolic nod to Haiti’s international commitment following the country’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The hotline known as SOS Timoun was established in 2000 by IBESR together with a corresponding PSA campaign, but it has enjoyed scant support from the Aristide government since the President was sworn in for a second term on February 7, 2001. The Institute claims to handle up to 200 requests for assistance per year. With minimal staff and a single vehicle for the entire service, this assistance is limited, they claim, to making an inquiry into the case, educating the adults in charge on the child’s rights and exhorting them not to repeat the abuse, removing the child to a center if she expresses the desire not to stay, and occasionally taking a case to court. There is usually no follow-up past the initial response. Other requests for information about the services of the IBESR made directly to the hotline encountered flat refusals to answer any questions.

Few organizations provide direct assistance or offer alternatives to the restavèk. Of the projects that exist, few have the capacity to handle the level of demand for assistance, advocate successfully for reforms by launching one-time or sustained campaigns, engage and interact with local and international NGOs as well as intergovernmental institutions not to mention the capacity or will to remove the child from the system. Haiti’s leading human rights groups, trade unions, and women’s organizations have left the plight of the restavèk child largely untouched. Other groups incorporate restavèk advocacy into a larger children’s rights program.

Efforts to develop a “code of conduct” to raise consciousness of children’s rights must be supplemented with measures that place pressure on the Government of Haiti to respect its obligations under the Constitution and international law toward children in general and restavèk children in particular. Instead of neglecting efforts to hold the authorities accountable for continuously failing to honor their obligations, Haitian civil society must step up demands on the government and channel their collective efforts to advocate for meaningful policy on restavèk in addition to providing immediate relief to restavèk children and educating the community about the realities of the practice.

With the support of UNICEF and in consultation with various non-governmental organizations, a Haitian parliamentary commission drafted a law on children in 2000. It has yet to be debated or voted on. Analysis of its provisions reveal, however, that it will be of little comfort to the restavèk children who toil in Haiti today. The code contains 7 titles, 18 chapters and 390 articles. Nowhere in the 52-page document is the restavèk child or her situation referred to directly. The closest it comes to identifying such children is under a heading that defines children in difficult situations; parroting the language of the CRC but doing little to adapt its provisions to the realities of Haiti.

The practice of restavèk is pervasive, and intimately interwoven with Haitian traditions, attitudes toward children, stark class distinctions, gender inequality, and above all, wrenching poverty. No simple solution is available. While our ultimate goal is to see the practice eliminated in its entirety, a more complex approach must be taken to address the multi-faceted problem as it exists today.

In this report we make several recommendations to the government of Haiti, non-governmental organizations and the international community. We highlight the following in this executive summary:

Government of Haiti

Ratify ILO Convention 182 Against the Worst Forms of Child Labor and harmonize Haitian law accordingly, including:

Enact laws to criminalize the practice of restavèk

Increase the minimum age for domestic workers to 15 from the current 12

Developing a reliable internal monitoring structure that reports yearly on progress made to eliminate the restavèk system and the observance of Haitian children’s rights

Ensure enforcement of laws and regulations governing domestic labor, including time off and schooling, paying special attention to the problems faced by girls

Avoid passage of any new labor code that does not address the restavèk practice

Haitian Civil Society

Haitian human rights organizations, labor unions, women’s organizations, teachers’ unions and other groups should join and support efforts of existing child rights movements, promoting children’s rights, and especially the abolition of the restavèk practice

Wage intensive awareness raising campaigns on the restavèk practice and create a plan to provide more intensive public education on children’s rights, alternatives to corporal punishment, and other harmful practices

International Actors

Press the Haitian government to adopt measures to eliminate the restavèk practice

Support Haitian initiatives addressing the problems of child domestic labor, both financially and with technical assistance

We are acutely aware of the fact that the restavèk system does not exist in a vacuum. In this report, we argue that in and of itself it should be neither tolerated nor remain among the customs that contribute to the makeup of the Haitian people. More importantly, we are insisting on its elimination because it is the nexus for several other societal ills that together constitute tacit support for a wide array of human rights abuses that, nurtured during childhood, retard Haitian development and fuel its chronic socio-economic and political crises.


  Campaign Overview
  Rights of the Child
  Where is Your Grown-up?
  How You Can Help
  Children of Shadows - 54-min documentary
  Defensora de la libertad
Restavèk No More: Eliminating Child Slavery in Haiti - NCHR Report - April 18, 2002
  State Party Report - Haiti to the UN with Respect to the Convention on the Rights of the Child Submitted in 2001
  Ti Saintanise - restavèk story in Creole by Maurice Sixto
  NCHR Urges Haiti President to Fullfill Promises on Children's Rights
   Restavčk: Four-year-old Servants in Haiti - Haiti Insight Dec '96 / Jan '97
   Join NCHR in the March for Children's Rights
   Articles and Books

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