September 10, 2012
September 10, 2012
JÉRÉMIE, HAITI – Noise, games and laughter marked a special day for children in Jérémie, Haiti, as advocates and local children gathered to recognize and celebrate children’s rights.
Jérémie, a small town located on the western end of Haiti, has a reputation for its poverty and accompanying violence. To break from this reality, a group of young artists recently organized a day for children in the neighborhood of St. Helene to educate them on their rights and encourage them to respect those of their peers.
One of these artists is Isaac Fortune, a 22-year-old agronomy student at the University of the Nouvelle Grand’Anse.
“Everybody needs to participate in society,” says Fortune, who is also a member of a mock parliament program for young people. “The authorities ignore the needs of children. But if we want to construct a new Haiti, we cannot afford to ignore those needs. Even if we cannot bring 100-percent change, we can reduce the level of violence that exists in these neighborhoods.”
As part of the event, the artists focused on “restaveks,” children who work as domestic servants in many Haitian households. Instead of living with their own families, they are “employed” by other families who often promise them shelter, food and education in exchange for labor. But advocates say they are often mistreated and do not go to school.
Salnave Louis, 16, is a restavek. He lives in the countryside, in a rural area called Fon Kochon. He says that after his mother died, a man in the community took him in. But the man and his family quickly made him into their domestic servant.
Domestic enslavement of children has been illegal in Haiti for longer than any other country in the region, according to Free the Slaves, an organization that works to end all forms of modern slavery worldwide. Yet the practice continues to affect as many as one in 10 Haitian children.
Louis says he does not go to school. He instead works hard doing household chores and, as a result, is always dirty. He walks long distances to reach the closest water sources and then treks back with heavy buckets to supply the family with water. He cleans the house, maintains the small field on the property and retrieves what the family needs at the market.
He says the family often beats him, especially on the head. He suffers from constant headaches.
Haitian law requires families to register the children they employ as restaveks, send them to school for at least four hours a day and provide them with regular medical checkups. But there is little compliance with or awareness of these laws.
Linda Jean, 38, is a teacher who works with children ages 3 to 16. She says that there are no exact statistics regarding the number of restaveks in Haiti. But Grand’Anse, the department in which Jérémie is located, has more children in domestic servitude than in other parts of the country, she says.
“One of the reasons for this is that the majority of the population is illiterate and has a hard time making ends meet,” she says. “So if somebody comes along in need of a servant and when somebody comes and promises to put your child in school and treat him or her well, the family is only too eager to part with the child, telling themselves that the child will have a better life.”
A group of artists is offering a different strategy to ensure better lives for children here.
The young artists launched a series of children’s rights days this year in marginalized neighborhoods of southwestern Haiti. The first of these days called attention to restaveks, children who are forced to work as domestic servants. The group of artists strives to join other organizations working for children’s rights to inspire hope in children, whom they recognize as the country’s future.
Event organizers say Haiti’s reconstruction must begin at the grassroots, which is why they chose the neighborhood of St. Helene for the first children’s rights day. The young artists plan to organize similar activities in all the marginalized sections of Jérémie in order to promote children’s rights.
The United Nations established the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989 as the first legally binding international instrument to ensure children basic rights, such as protection and education. Haiti signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 and ratified it in 1995.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, according to UNICEF. The under-5 mortality rate in Haiti was 165 out of every 1,000 live births as of 2010. More than 20 percent of children ages 5 to 14 were involved in child labor activities.
About 80 children ranging in age from 6 to 16 participated in the day in St. Helene. The festivities began with the singing of the national anthem followed by a short musical interlude by Obin Dorcy Jacques and John Hyvens Plaisy, local musicians who volunteered to perform.
Guillaume Gerald, an employee of the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental organization that promotes humane migration, then took the microphone to explain to the children the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations in 1959.
Gerald also talked about restaveks. He said they were often mistreated and did not go to school. He then asked the children present what they knew about restaveks.
Lorvensky St. Louis, a 13-year-old dressed in a gray T-shirt and jeans, answered.
“A restavek is a boy or a girl who lives with somebody who treats them badly,” he said. “Those children get up very early to start housework. They don’t go to school. They are not well-kempt, and often they are dirty.”
Some of the restaveks in the neighborhood peeked out of the windows of the homes where they stay. The event organizers invited them to participate, but they were too shy to join the other children. Gerald took the opportunity to remind the children present that everybody deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.
“That applies to children also,” he said. “No matter where – at home, in school, in the neighborhood – we need to treat each other as brothers and sisters.”
He then showed a film that showed groups of boys and girls singing and dancing. The children depicted in the film were restaveks.
“This just goes to show,” he said, “that everybody has talent – even children who work as domestics.”
Jean, who works with local children, says that restaveks stand out for their poor treatment.
“It is not difficult to know which child is a restavek,” Jean says. “They never get a chance to sit down. Only when the family that took them in goes someplace can they take a little break and rest. But as soon as they hear the family returning, they immediately start working again so they are not hit.”
Jean recounts a conversation with a young restavek who told her that she would rather live with her own family than with strangers. This young girl said that she had to get up very early in the morning or the family she worked for would beat her. When the family goes out, she has to wait outside – regardless of the weather – until they return.
She says that appearance is another sign that children are restaveks.
“They are always dirty, and often their hair is reddish, a sign of malnutrition,” she says. “They walk around without shoes.”
She says that many are not educated.
“When they do go to school, they are thinking about the work that awaits them,” she says. “Often they have so much work to do that they do not make it to school regularly.”
As for the history of restaveks in Haiti, Jean likens the practice to the system of slavery that their forefathers endured.
“It is almost as if we are passing this system of slavery on to our children,” she says. “It just takes on a different form. We have too much work to do, and the work we are no longer able to do, we give to children we take into the family.”
Jean also pointed out that the majority of these restaveks actually live with relatives. The relatives don’t respect the poverty of the children’s parents, so they don’t respect the children.
Jean has been involved in an awareness campaign regarding the plight of restaveks. She says that the Ecumenical Foundation for Peace and Justice, the International Organization of Migration and St. Jean Bosco, a day care center for street children and restaveks, are the groups that are trying to address this problem here in Jérémie.
Bringing fresh energy to these efforts is the group of artists with their new children’s rights days. They plan to host similar days as the one held in St. Helene for children in marginalized areas throughout the city. They are also organizing a soccer tournament for local children.
“This project began while thinking about what we could do to help the kids in the marginalized neighborhoods of our town,” says Jean Roobens Decaste, 24, one of the artists who organized the event in St. Helene. “We went on the radio to talk about how children should be treated. Some of the children practically raise themselves without any guidance from family or community. We would like to change that.”
Fortune says that the organizers sought outside support to plan the children’s day but that donation promises fell through. Instead, the group of artists organized a concert to generate the funds needed to stage the event.
The day concluded with refreshments and an encouragement from Jacques Kepler Jean, a radio personality on Radio Lambi. Jean told the children that the country is counting on them, and he asked them to share with others what they had heard on this day.
Decaste says that education and empowerment can prevent children from falling into delinquency.
“When children see that some young people like us are interested in them, then that makes them feel that they are somebody,” he says. “If they have no support at all, it is easy for them to fall into delinquency, often just because they want society to notice them.”
He says that supporting the nation’s children is crucial.
“It is said that children and young people are the future,” he says. “So how can we just sit around and do nothing?”