JÉRÉMIE, HAITI – Noise, games and laughter marked a special day for children in Jérémie, Haiti, as advocates and local children gathered to recognize and celebrate children ’s rights.
Jérémie, a small town located on the western end of Haiti, has a reputation for its poverty and accompanying violence. To break from this reality, a group of young artists recently organized a day for children in the neighborhood of St. Helene to educate them on their rights and encourage them to respect those of their peers.
One of these artists is Isaac Fortune, a 22-year-old agronomy student at the University of the Nouvelle Grand’Anse.
“Everybody needs to participate in society,” says Fortune, who is also a member of a mock parliament program for young people. “The authorities ignore the needs of children. But if we want to construct a new Haiti, we cannot afford to ignore those needs. Even if we cannot bring 100-percent change, we can reduce the level of violence that exists in these neighborhoods.”
As part of the event, the artists focused on “restaveks,” children who work as domestic servants in many Haitian households. Instead of living with their own families, they are “employed” by other families who often promise them shelter, food and education in exchange for labor. But advocates say they are often mistreated and do not go to school.
Salnave Louis, 16, is a restavek. He lives in the countryside, in a rural area called Fon Kochon. He says that after his mother died, a man in the community took him in. But the man and his family quickly made him into their domestic servant.
Domestic enslavement of children has been illegal in Haiti for longer than any other country in the region, according to Free the Slaves, an organization that works to end all forms of modern slavery worldwide. Yet the practice continues to affect as many as one in 10 Haitian children.
Louis says he does not go to school. He instead works hard doing household chores and, as a result, is always dirty. He walks long distances to reach the closest water sources and then treks back with heavy buckets to supply the family with water. He cleans the house, maintains the small field on the property and retrieves what the family needs at the market.
He says the family often beats him, especially on the head. He suffers from constant headaches.
Haitian law requires families to register the children they employ as restaveks, send them to school for at least four hours a day and provide them with regular medical checkups. But there is little compliance with or awareness of these laws.
Linda Jean, 38, is a teacher who works with children ages 3 to 16. She says that there are no exact statistics regarding the number of restaveks in Haiti. But Grand’Anse, the department in which Jérémie is located, has more children in domestic servitude than in other parts of the country, she says.
“One of the reasons for