Voix Verte | Restavek: Children and the Effects of Abuse in Haiti

Voix Verte | Published Jan 14, 2013

Aliyah Cole -- There are an estimated 225,000 restavèks in Haiti — children who live in households other than the ones in which they were born, and who work in these households in return for their room and board. 

This system is one characterized by economic necessity, as the families that send their children to be restavèks are ones that cannot afford to take care of one or more of them. The feasibility of sending a child off to be a restavèk is then evident—the family can afford to take care of their remaining members, while, theoretically, the restavèk child or children are assured a decent standard of care. This is especially true when the “host” family is related to the child in their care and employment. 

This theory does not, however, always line up with reality. While it is impossible to know the prevalence of abuse towards restavèks in Haiti, it is known that many of these children—some of whom are as young as six years old—endure unthinkable conditions and are often physically and sexually abused and denied adequate nutrition and access to school. 

This is obviously a human rights’ issue, especially since this situation affects the lives of children, but as an estimated 66% of restavèks are girls, it also becomes a question of women’s rights. 

One of the primary concerns surrounding restavèks, both boys and girls, is that they are particularly vulnerable to abuse, and that these abuses are likely to go unreported. Often, the children involved are either too young to know how to report the abuse, unaware that they can, or in such a position of dependence on their abusers that they feel unable to do so. 

A Pan American Development Foundation report, however, found that girls are especially likely to be stuck in a cycle of abuse, as there is not adequate space in existing women’s shelters to accommodate female restavèks fleeing the abusive environment.

This puts female restavèks more at risk of having to live on the streets if they do escape their host household, which, in turn, puts them at risk of being trafficked across the border to the Dominican Republic or further afield as slaves, whether sexual or not. 

This fact points to another key issue at stake—girls are more likely to be restavèks as the domestic chores which they perform are generally gendered as “female” in Haitian society, and girls are greater in number. 

This female servitude is problematic especially because, statistically speaking, more educated women wait longer before having children; have fewer children; and place a heavy emphasis on educating and empowering their children, especially their daughters. 

In fact, one of the most effective ways that a country can promote development is to ensure the education of girls—for example, part of the contract involved when getting a loan from the Grameen Bank in Asia is that women promise that they will send their children to school. 

The restavèk system in Haiti, however, impairs this sort of economic growth, as restavèks are so often denied access to school. In all likelihood, girls who are restavèks will grow up to be women who, lacking knowledge about and access to family planning resources, will have more children than they can care for, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty that necessitates the restavèk system. 

Additionally, since one in ten Haitian children is a restavèk, and two thirds of these children are girls, the denial of education to these children will lead to a future with a severe gender imbalance in all fields that require education of any sort. Without adequate education and training, women are more likely to remain in positions of dependence to men.

The United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) address several of the issues outlined above. Among the MDGs are the establishment of universal primary education worldwide, and the promotion of gender equality and children’s health.

The MDGs have been criticized for their unrealistic nature—and it is blindingly obvious at this point that their goals will not be achieved by the target year of 2015—but it does give us a perspective with which to look at the present situation in Haiti, and the importance of wiping out the dangerous elements of the restavèk system. 

The practice has already been outlawed in Haiti, but as is evident, it still continues, as law enforcement officials presumably have more important things to do with their time. The practice itself may not be inherently harmful, and is certainly useful for families struggling to make ends meet. What is urgently needed, however, is an end to the abuse of restavèks in Haitian households.

One of the biggest problems of the system is that it is completely informal and unregulated: children are simply taken by the host family, without any record of the transaction having taken place. Without any record or accountability, host families can do as they like with their restavèk, without fear from any governing authority. 

Although it would probably not be feasible in the foreseeable future, one way to solve this problem would be to institute a system of foster care, where some minimal paperwork would have to be filed in order to finalize a restavèk relationship. 

The most immediate thing that can be done to end the cycle of poverty that leads to the restavèk system to begin with would be to gradually begin increasing primary school capacities to the point where mandatory primary schooling is feasible. 

This would ensure that all restavèks would get the education that they need to escape the cycle of poverty, and, especially where girls are concerned, give the entire country a boost in development indicators in a generation or two. 

This would also decrease the isolation of restavèks and give them a place where abuse can be reported, and hopefully be addressed.

In the end, modifying or abolishing the practice should lead to an improvement of the condition of women and girls in Haiti, which, as outlined above, will have a positive effect on the development of the country at large.