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Posted November 24, 2003
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To survive, young forced into servitude

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Describing the beating that drove her to the streets, Madeleine Vilma spoke as if she deserved it. "I made them mad at me," the skinny 15-year-old recalls of the two women who had paid a pittance for her six years ago and then put her to work as a maid. "I broke the heel off my shoe, so they beat me with their sandals."

Dispatched to the slums of the Haitian capital when she was 9 by parents unable to feed her, Madeleine had been delivered by a trader into a life of unpaid domestic servitude in exchange for food and shelter. Like an estimated 300,000 other children in this poorest of Western countries, she had no alternative except homelessness and hunger.

The children, called "restaveks" - from the French "rester avec," to stay with - are not servants of the wealthy but of those just slightly less poor than the parents who sent them here.

As Haiti slips further into extreme poverty each year, the wave of children - some as young as 4 - flocking to the cities has become a deluge, forcing most to settle for whatever offer of shelter is at hand. Children who are not brokered go door-to-door looking for a place to stay.

"Most of these patrons want someone they can have do anything they need done without the conditions that come with employing an adult domestic," said the Rev. Pierre St. Vistal, who runs a mission that houses 45 children and feeds hundreds of others. "With kids, there are no limits. They have no rights and can be made to do anything."

Restaveks first appeared in the capital in the 1920s and ’30s, when wealthy families, as "an act of solidarity" with the rural poor, offered shelter and education in exchange for domestic labor.

But as the gap between rich and poor widened drastically in recent decades, ragged children coming from the countryside became so numerous that they were forced to work for anyone able to make the daily pot of beans and rice go one mouth further.

"The wealthy families don’t want to get involved anymore. They say this is a form of slavery, and they don’t want to be associated with it," says Wenes Jeanty, who runs a charity that helps the children. "That has left the children to the poor and less educated in the cities."

For most restaveks growing up far away from their families, there is no caring soul to help them.

"The households that take these kids in see them as chattel," says Merrie Archer, director of human-rights programs for the National Coalition for Haitian Rights.

"Often their own parents see them as chattel, as a means of getting support for themselves once the kids get work in the city."

Few ever escape their indentured servitude to find paying jobs.

People trying to help Haiti’s enslaved children scoff at the government’s claims that it is addressing the problem. "There has been a law against child labor for years, but it has never been enforced," says Jean Lherisson, head of Haiti Solidarity International.

Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles

Times Reprinted from The Seattle Times of November 23, 2003.

Related article, Slavery in the family.

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