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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
kind of work do you do? What time do you start?" I asked
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,"
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.
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.
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.
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.
like this school because I like to learn," Celine said.
"My favorite courses are reading and writing."