The Children of Haiti: Lives on the edge

If the situation was dire for the children of Haiti before Tuesday, the situation has grown exponentially grave in the wake of the earthquake.

The country has the highest mortality rate for children younger than 5 in the Western Hemisphere, as well as a high death rate among infants and women giving birth. Just slightly over half of school-age children are actually enrolled in school.

For more than a quarter of a million young Haitians, slavery is not a vestige of the past, but rather a daily reality. These typically young Haitian girls belong to the class of the “restavek” (from the French reste avec, “one who stays with”). They are undocumented, unpaid, unprotected, live-in child workers. De facto slaves living less than 600 miles from the coast of the United States. The mere idea sends deep shivers of sadness through me.

According to the seminal work of Jean-Robert Cadet “Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American”:

Restavecs are slave children who “belong” to well-to-do families. They receive no pay and are kept out of school. Since the emancipation and independence of 1804, affluent blacks and mulattoes have reintroduced slavery by using children of the very poor as house servants. They promise poor families in faraway villages who have too many mouths to feed a better life for their children. Once acquired, these children lose all contact with their families and, like slaves of the past, are sometimes given new names for the sake of convenience.

What is the genesis for such tacitly endorsed slavery. 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.

Sadly, cultural norms also validate this well-worn 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 can be an insurance policy.


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