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Teacher Recalls Haitian Childhood Spent as Slave

Human rights: It is an island tradition for poor children to be sent to live with wealthier families as domestic workers, called 'restaveks.' Too often they are treated as chattel.

January 02, 2000|IAN JAMES | ASSOCIATED PRESS

As a child growing up in Haiti, Jean-Robert Cadet slept under the kitchen table, washed the feet of the woman he served and endured beatings with a leather whip.

He never celebrated his birthday, could only speak when spoken to and worked without pay, dusting the furniture, cleaning the floor and sweeping the yard while other children played.

Cadet was a "restavek"--a Haitian Creole term that means "staying with." It describes children whose parents, often poor, give them to wealthier families as servants in hopes the children will have food, schooling and a better life. The practice is widely accepted in Haiti.

Cadet, now a teacher in Cincinnati, says restaveks are "slave children," and he is leading a campaign to rid Haiti of the practice.

He has written a book titled "Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American," in which he recounts the labor, neglect and violence that began when he was a young boy. ("Restavek" is the modern spelling.)

UNICEF Monitoring Restavek System

Cadet says he has met many Haitians who acknowledge isolated cases of abuse in the restavek system but believe it often helps poor children who otherwise would be worse off.

"My goal is to make the term 'restavek' a social taboo," he said in an interview. "Once you do that, the system will end."

The use of children as domestic workers in Haiti has drawn the attention of UNICEF and other groups that monitor children's rights. In 1998, the U.N. agency estimated the number of restaveks in Haiti at 300,000.

"Domestic labor and mistreatment of restaveks often go hand-in-hand," the UNICEF study said. "These children live in painful conditions."

Restaveks are beaten more frequently than other children, and young girls working as restaveks are often sexually abused, said Dr. Louis Roy, the official ombudsman of Haiti.

"Must we put a stop to it?" he said. "There is legislation. But it can't be implemented until the social situation improves."

Restavek children are handed over to their new families when they are old enough to work, often between 6 and 10 years old. Cadet joined the family at age 4 and began working at 7.

Poverty is the primary force driving children into unpaid servitude in Haiti--the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and among the poorest nations in the world.

Nearly two centuries ago African slaves in Haiti successfully rebelled against French rule, and in 1804 created the first independent black republic in the Western Hemisphere. But Haiti's free population reinstituted servitude for children.

In his book, Cadet argues that restaveks "are treated worse than slaves, because they don't cost anything and their supply seems inexhaustible."

Seeking to bring attention to the issue, the National Coalition for Haitian Rights hosted more than 300 guests at a benefit in New York on Nov. 5 and presented Cadet with an award.

"We are raising the issue of slavery living and thriving among us today," the group's executive director, Jocelyn McCalla, told the crowd.

But one Haitian woman at the event, Michelle Burnadin, said her family previously had restaveks and had treated them well, making sure they attended school and learned to read.

"I think it's good when the kids need help if they can find a parent with a good heart. My mother treated them just like family," she said. Two decades after leaving Haiti, though, she said it now bothers her to remember that the restaveks referred to her as "miss."

"When I came here, I saw it was like the wrong thing," she said. "It was kind of slavery. I see two sides of it, but what can you do?"

McCalla said his group is urging initial steps such as stricter enforcement of child abuse laws and requirements that children be allowed to attend school. The system is too ingrained in the society to be prohibited outright at first, he said.

In Haiti, Social Affairs Minister Mathilde Flambert has said the keeping of restaveks is a problem that should be addressed. But so far the government has done nothing.

Near Port-au-Prince, the Maurice Sixto Center in Carrefour provides one hot meal of rice and vegetables each day to needy children, most of them restaveks.

The center, founded a decade ago by a Roman Catholic priest, attracts about 230 children each day and is funded by UNICEF, the European Union and other groups. The children are taught to read and write--skills that many restaveks never learn.

One 12-year-old boy at the center said he would like to become a tailor. He said he sneaked to the center carrying a bucket, giving the excuse that he was going to draw water. His back was bruised from what he said was a beating.

A 12-year-old girl said her master once smeared her genitals with hot red pepper to punish her for some misdeed.

Many restaveks are released from duty when they are teenagers to fend for themselves shining shoes or doing any other work they can find.

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