BY MONIQUE LeBRUN
Rose Rousseau grew up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and was raised by her older cousin whom she thought of as her mom. Their family lived near the national palace and in 2004 when a coup d’etat ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, it was too dangerous for Rousseau to live there. She was sent to live with her uncle and his wife in Carrefour, another part of the capital. There she became friends with the family’s restavek, a young girl named Gina.
“We slept in the same bed, we wore the same clothes, but for me she was someone just like me. There was nothing different,” said Rousseau. “Sometimes she combed my hair, I combed her hair, and for me it was like I had a friend in the house. I didn’t see her as a restavek.”
In Haiti, children from poor families become restaveks, which means to stay with in both French and Creole, because their parents can’t afford to take care of them or send them to school. Often families from rural parts of Haiti send their children to live in the city with a distant relative, family friend or a stranger. Families agree to take care of restaveks and pay for their education. But the agreement is almost never kept, according to Haitian activists, NGOs and former restaveks. The estimated 300,000 children are turned into domestic servants and abused, a situation some have compared to slavery.
‘’One of the reasons the people talk about slavery is because Haiti was the first black country to abolish slavery,” said Samuel Baptiste, a child advocate for Restavek Freedom, a non-profit that aims to end the practice. “Because the restavek has to do everything in the home it seems like the same thing. They don’t have a voice in the house; can’t say anything; has to be obedient.”
Restaveks are protected under international and Haitian laws but the practice isn’t banned outright in Haiti. Under Haitian law, children are prohibited from working until the age of 15 and are required to receive at least a primary education. In addition Haiti has endorsed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a UN sponsored global initiative that entitles all children to basic rights, including the right to play, the right to be protected from sexual abuse, and the right to an education.
But many restaveks aren’t allowed to attend school at all.
“If you want to understand the restavek system then you need to understand the reality of the society,“ said Baptiste.
Baptiste described the restavek practice as an infectious mindset that has survived generations rather than a tradition or an aspect of Haitian culture. “It’s a question of education, but it’s not cultural,” he said, adding that police officers and government officials aren’t exempt from this way of thinking.
“I don’t call people restavek or maid. I hate that word,” said Betty Aristide, president of the Voice of Young Ladies Aiding Youth, a non-profit she started to support girls in Haiti. “A lot of people feel like they’re entitled because they’re making more money or because they’re in a different status in their lives. Its just status, that’s how life is. Some of us are in different statuses based on your family, based on how much money you have. That doesn’t mean you’re better than people that just means you have a different status. Some of them just feel like ‘I own it’. They grew up with the mindset, like they grew up thinking ‘I deserve this.’”
Haitians are divided by geography—cities versus small towns—but socially status, class and wealth divide them as well. Rural Haitians believe that living in the city would give them better opportunities, especially for an education and jobs, activists say. This is why parents are so willing to send their children to live with others.
“If the parents can work then they would never give their kids away. They do it because they want their kids to have a better life. But at the end it’s worse than that. They don’t really have a better life. They have a worse life, ”said Rousseau, who lived with relatives who had a restavek named Gina. “They can eat; the parents can give them food. But in the end it’s not really what you can give your kids, not only food. You should give your kids an education, you give them clean clothes.”
Gina was from the countryside of Haiti, a small town called Des Cayes, and the eldest of her siblings. Rousseau’s aunt and uncle, friends of Gina’s family, offered to take her in. But like most restaveks, Gina wasn’t sent to school.
Rousseau began to share her clothes and money with Gina, and Gina was able to use the money to pay to go to school at night. During the day it was Gina’s responsibility to do the grocery shopping, cook, clean, wash and iron clothes. And at night, Rousseau would help Gina finish cooking dinner, so Gina could go to class.
“When Rousseau lived with her “mom” they had two maids who were paid to babysit, cook and clean. So when Rousseau witnessed Gina’s situation she was upset by it and she tried to help.
“For her it was bad. Compared to my life it was bad. But I know kids who lived not to far from my house it was worse for them,” said Rousseau. “Some restavecs in the house they live in, the husband can rape them, they become pregnant and then they kick them out on the street.”
After staying with her uncle for a year, Rousseau went back home to Port-au-Prince and Gina ran away. The two girls never got a chance to see or talk to each other again.
Rousseau believes she will never be reunited with her childhood friend, but she sponsors a young girl in Haiti named Monise to help her avoid becoming a restavek. Each month, through an organization called World Vision, she sends about $40 to help pay for Monise’s education in Haiti.
“I think it’s the best thing to give them money and then they can have their own business or you create jobs so they can come to work. So they don’t need to give their kids away. ”