According to a 2012 study, the International Labor Organization estimates that “17.2 million children are in paid or unpaid domestic work in the home of a third party or employer.”
In Haiti, children work such domestic jobs in a position called “restavek.”
The word “restavek” comes from the Créole expression “to stay with” and takes this meaning because restavek children leave their families to stay with other relatives or family friends. They engage in household tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, and taking care of younger children, in exchange for room, board, and education that their parents cannot afford.
Many restaveks do not reap the full benefits of the exchange, particularly when it comes to education, because they endure physically strenuous and time restricted working situations.
Restaveks can be any age from 5-17 years old and work in very particular conditions. In fact, they do not receive conventional payment for their labor and perform all job duties in the privacy of the home. Their employer, landlord, and family often fall under the same category, so they lack formal institutional protection afforded to many other employees, tenants, and children. To make matters more complicated, as former restavek Jean-Robert Cadet stated to Business Insider many restaveks “don’t have birth certificates and are not registered with the government.”
While the restavek system had mutually beneficial origins, restavek labor conditions render working children vulnerable to physical, psychological, and even sexual abuse.
In 2012, UNICEF profiled the story of restavek “Larissa.” Larissa, 10 years old, moved in with acquaintances of her relatives with the hope of being able to afford school. Instead, her “employers” made her start work at 4 a.m. and finish after they went to sleep. Larissa’s tasks included cleaning floors, making beds, washing dishes, helping prepare lunch, going to the market, watching a 4 year old and fetching water from a pump down the street. This left Larissa little time to attend school. When she brought up leaving to the family with whom she lived, she was whipped and had to escape clandestinely. Unfortunately, though Larissa’s story is horrifying , it does not represent an isolated case.
Finding accurate statistics on restaveks children remains challenging due to the hidden nature of restavek work. Human Rights Watch, however, estimates that 150,000-500,000 Haitian children work as restaveks.
Improving conditions for restavek children requires community engagement and open denunciation of the phenomenon. The grassroots organization called the Foundation Limyè Lavi, for example, works to fight it by holding public awareness raising situations about child rights and group dialogues about how to keep youth out of the restavek system.
Ending these exploitative conditions also requires battling the root issues that cause children to leave their parents in the first place. This means tackling long-term problems, such as poverty and barriers to education, while considering how to mitigate their negative effects on a short-term basis.
Progresses in these initiatives, on a local, national, and international level, could make great differences in the quality of life for Haitian youth.
They could turn stories like Larissa’s into relics of the past.