Untitled Document
Haiti Issues

Issues: News: Efforts: History: Language: Map: Restavik:


Rivière Froide, Haiti — When she was only ten years old, the harsh realities of rural Haitian life irrevocably changed Celine Bouchon's* childhood. Her family was offered a bone-chilling deal from a local businessman: release Celine to his care and he would arrange for her to work as a live-in domestic servant in the far-off capital of Port-au-Prince. Celine would not be paid, he said, but she would go to school.
Like thousands of other poor Haitian families, Celine's relatives agreed to the offer because of their dismal economic plight. Eighty percent of the Caribbean country's rural population lives below the absolute poverty line, according to UNICEF. With Celine in Port-au-Prince, her family would have one less child to feed. Her relatives hoped that by letting her go, she might have a chance at a better life and an education, a highly prized but virtually unobtainable goal for many Haitian families. More than half of the primary school students in Haiti never reach the fifth grade.

For the past three years, Celine has worked as a restavik, Haitian Creole for a child who works as an unpaid servant and lives apart from his or her family. Elizabeth Gibbons, the UNICEF Representative in Haiti, told me during my January 1996 visit to Port-au-Prince that there may be as many as 250,000 restaviks in Haiti, a staggeringly high human statistic in a country of 7 million people.

I had the opportunity of meeting Celine, who is thirteen years old, when I visited Foyer Maurice Sixto, a special school for restaviks that UNICEF supports. Restavik recruiters usually promise families that the child they want to take away from them will go to school; but in nearly every instance, the pledge is never honored. Instead, Gibbons explained, the children are put to work.

To come to the aid of restaviks, the Rev. Miguel Jean-Baptiste founded Foyer Maurice Sixto in 1990. Father Jean-Baptiste also serves as a parish priest in Rivière Froide, and he uses his influence in this heavily Roman Catholic country to convince families who employ restaviks to send the child servants to his school.

The family Celine works for did not enroll her in a school until Father Jean-Baptiste persuaded them to send her to Foyer Maurice Sixto. When I met Celine in Father Jean-Baptiste's office, she was wearing a beautiful ribbon in her hair and a carefully ironed school uniform.

"What kind of work do you do? What time do you start?" I asked her.

"The sun is up when I get up. I wash the dishes. I iron. I cook. I clean the plates people have eaten off. I fill buckets with water. I work for a household of five, including me. The parents of the family work as a mechanic and as a seamstress," Celine said.

She turned her face towards the floor, drifted her feet in different directions, and seemed hesitant. Then she told us she is beaten by the mother of the family she works for. Father Jean-Baptiste informed me later that many of his students are regularly beaten and abused by the families that employ them.

What particularly disturbed me at Foyer Maurice Sixto was that there were children at the school as young as four. Since these children are separated from their families and work 8 to 10 hours a day, they do not receive the love, affection, and attention that all children deserve. Consequently, they frequently appear emotionally and physically younger than they are. Several of the four-year-old restaviks I saw at Foyer Maurice Sixto looked and moved as if they were much younger. Among some employers, the motivation for hiring very young restaviks is equally disturbing: They want the children to be as young as possible so they can be easily intimidated and trained to be particularly docile.

Before I spoke with Celine, Father Jean-Baptiste told me, "We create a family-like atmosphere at the school. We concentrate on attention, family, and affection. The children come in the afternoon for two or three hours, and we surround them with support. We teach them to read and to write, and skills like arts and crafts. We try to give them an opportunity for tomorrow," said Father Jean-Baptiste.

Despite her extreme hardships, Celine may have found in Father Jean- Baptiste's school precisely the opportunity her family hoped she would find in Port-au-Prince.

"I like this school because I like to learn," Celine said. "My favorite courses are reading and writing."