Child servants a blot on Haiti's abolitionist past

Haitian children

Dayana Denois was always the last to go to bed and the first to wake up.

By dawn, she had washed the dishes and clothes, cleaned and swept the floor and emptied the chamber pots.

"I didn't know what resting meant. Even when I was sick, I'd never get a break," Denois said, recalling the years she spent living with her aunt in Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince.

"She didn't care if I was tired or not. She kept telling me to do things. She beat me with electric cables, shouted at me, punched and slapped me on the face," the 12-year-old said.

Denois was a "restavek", from the French "rester avec" or "to stay with", a Haitian Creole word that refers to the practice of parents giving away children they are too poor to feed and look after.

Mostly from rural areas, these children are sent to stay with wealthier relatives and acquaintances in the hope they will be given a better life and sent to school. But instead many of them are treated as little more than slaves.

The irony is not lost in a country that was the first in the Americas to abolish slavery more than 200 years ago.

Experts say the number of restaveks accelerated after the massive earthquake on the Caribbean island nation in 2010.

"Many children lost their families. They didn't have a place to sleep and have someone to take care of them. And they met people who put them in domestic servitude," said Marline Mondesir, who founded a refuge for restavek children.

The International Labour Organisation estimates that one in 10 Haitian children is a restavek - across the country that amounts to around 300,000 individuals.

REFUGE

For Denois, four years of verbal and physical abuse finally ended when a concerned neighbour put her in touch with Haiti's social services, which referred her to the Action Centre for Development.

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