It is estimated that there are 59,000 people living in conditions of modern slavery in Haiti (GSI 2018). The majority of Haiti’s trafficking cases involve children trapped in domestic servitude as restavèks. They are often physically abused, receive no pay and have significantly lower school enrolment rates. As a result of this, many children flee employer’s homes or abusive families, becoming street children. Moreover, female foreign nationals, especially from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking and forced labour in Haiti. Other vulnerable groups include children in residential care centres, children working in construction, agriculture, fisheries, and street vending, along with internally displaced persons as a result of the 2010 Haitian earthquake. Alina “Tibebe” Cajuste was given away as a child to live as a restavèk (a child in Haiti who is sent by their parents to work for a host household as a domestic servant because the parents lack the resources required to support the child). Alina was forced to work long hours with no breaks, no days off and subjected to physical abuse daily. One day Alina finally escaped, travelling to Darbonne to find her mother who told her about her father and why she was given away. Alina found her father and his family, however after his death she was not accepted by the family. Becoming so low, Alina states that it was only with the help of a women’s organisation that she was able to feel like she existed in society.
Helia Lajeunesse is part of a women’s group, Limye Lavi, which works to end the institution of restavec in Haiti. Restavèk is a traditional system in which Haitian children from homes suffering economic and social difficulties are sent by parents to live with other families and work for them as domestic servants. There is a perception that the child will be enrolled in school by the host household and treated like one of the family, but often the reality is completely different. For many children, the day is filled with work. Lajeunesse’s own children were put into restavec fosterage when they were young, but with the help of Limye Lavi, her children are now free as well.
Carina, like many other children in Haiti, became a Restavèk worker. Restavèk is a traditional system in which Haitian children from homes suffering economic and social difficulties are sent by parents to live with other families and work for them as domestic servants. There is a perception that the child will be enrolled in school by the host household and treated like one of the family, but often the reality is completely different. For many children, the day is filled with work. As Carina describes, even the youngest are expected to fetch heavy buckets of water, hand-wash clothes, carry loads to and from the marketplace, and work in the fields—often laboring for 14 hours a day for no pay. Carina’s story suggests that a model of community education and resistance against the Restavèk system has been effective at freeing children and returning them home.
Jean-Robert Cadet, a former child slave in Haiti, confronts the problem of freedom. The slave experience is not over for him: “nightmares…haunt me well into my adulthood…the trauma lasts a lifetime.” His childhood can “never be recovered,” and he will “feel its absence for the rest of my life.” The narrative quotes his wife’s observation that sometimes the “reality from decades ago is up on us again."As a restavek (Creole for “stay with”), Jean-Robert was one of thousands of Haitian children who are sent by their poor rural families to stay with wealthier families. Supposedly they will be treated like one of the family and enrolled in school, in exchange for domestic labor. But this rarely happens. Instead they work 14 hours a day for no compensation and are frequently abused. Slavery was supposedly abolished in Haiti after the revolt of 1794-1804, when African slaves fought and overthrew their French masters, and declared the colony of Saint-Domingue on the island of Hispaniola an independent republic. But as Haiti’s economy collapsed, and the country became the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, the restavek system exploded. The Haitian government estimates that 90,000-120,000 children are enslaved as restaveks, but the UN puts this number at 300,000—or one in ten children in Haiti. Some are as young as four years old, and 75 percent are girls, many of whom are sexually exploited.