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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 March 2007, 12:03 GMT
Haiti's hidden 'child slaves'
By Nick Caistor
Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Haiti was the first country in the Americas to abolish slavery, when it won its independence in 1804 after a struggle led by Toussaint Louverture. But thousands live a life of near-slave labour because of poverty and social breakdown.

Boy plays in a Port-au-Prince slum
Most Haitians live on less than 50 US cents (0.25) a day
Jeanette is walking up a hill in Petionville, a district in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. She is carrying a huge blue drum full of water on her head. Jeanette is only six, but has to walk 4km (2.4 miles) every day to get the water from the public standpipe.

Jeanette was born in the countryside outside the small town of Hinche in the north of the country. Her parents are among the poorest of the poor in this country where more than half the population of 9m lives on less than 50 US cents (0.25) a day.

Her father one day told her she was going to stay with (French: rester avec) distant relatives in the Haitian capital. Ever since, Jeanette has become one of the estimated 250,000 children used as near-slave labour in Haiti.

"They are treated as less than cats and dogs," says Soeur Marthe, a Belgian nun was has been working with the restavecs for several years now.

"Their families have nothing to offer them, so they almost give them away."

We are deceiving ourselves if we say this is some kind of national tradition. This is child slavery pure and simple
Margarett Lubin, IOM
Most of the children are employed as domestic servants, and often one of their main tasks is to get water for the households in the city.

Less than a quarter of Port-au-Prince dwellings have running water on the property: everyone else has to fetch it from public stand-pipes and fountains, often kilometres away.

So Jeanette is dispatched each morning and evening to secure this precious cargo. She also looks after the other children in the family, cleans the house, and does all the laundry.

No documents

What she does not do is go to school, have time to play with friends, or dare to hope that she will find proper employment one day.

Monument to independence and the end of slavery
A monument marks Haiti's historical rejection of slavery

Some local human rights groups are fighting to improve their situation. Prospery Raymond works with the Maurice Sixto centres which have opened in Port-au-Prince to try to give the restavecs some schooling, proper food, and a sense that they too have rights.

"The big problem for them is that they have no official existence," says Raymond.

"They often don't have a birth certificate, or any proof of who they are, and this makes them even more vulnerable to exploitation.

"We try to establish their identity, to get them into schools so that they can pass exams and get out of the dreadful situation they find themselves in."

This situation is often even worse when the restavecs reach the age of 15.

This is when by law they must be paid to work; and it is then that the families either throw them out on the street or force them to continue as unpaid domestics.

'Slavery pure and simple'

Until recently, the Haitian government did not acknowledge the scale of the restavec problem. Some officials still argue that this is the traditional way for poor rural families to help their children get on.

But as Margarett Lubin, who works with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Port-au-Prince, says:

"We are deceiving ourselves if we say this is some kind of national tradition. This is child slavery pure and simple."

Ms Lubin says that, according to Unicef, the numbers involved have doubled in recent years, as poverty and political instability in the countryside have become even worse.

She also points to an increasing traffic in children across the border that Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic in the east of the island.

"Because economic conditions are better there, some Haitian parents think they are helping their children get on if they are handed over to agents who ferry them across the border," she says.

"But those kids have no rights at all in the Dominican Republic, and they are often abused."

Although care for the restavecs in the cities is important, Ms Lubin thinks the only solution is to go to the root of the problem, out in the Haitian countryside:

"We need to show the poorest families that they have a duty to look after their children - and we need to build schools in the countryside, so that they have something to stay for."

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