Forced into a life of domestic servitude, Haiti’s child slaves

Photojournalist Paddy Dowling travels to Haiti to document its next generation: ‘restaveks’ – children separated from their families, heartbroken and forced into a life of slavery

Paddy Dowling
Friday 25 October 2019 15:53
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Seated in a darkened room at the end of a long corridor, hiding his face, he looks down. When questioned, he simply shrugs his small shoulders. One by one, tears cascade onto the table where he sits. Esperence, 10, a “restavek”, given up by his biological parents aged eight, surrenders to his emotions. He turns away, finds space and tries to wipe away the suffering with each pass of his shirt sleeve.

A country once enslaved, Haiti revolted in 1791 to free itself from the shackles of its French masters. By 1804, Haitians – led by the heroic military strategist Toussaint L’Ouverture – had achieved the only successful slave revolt in modern history. But today, children like Esperence are given away to more affluent households and new masters. They become domestic servants – forced to work without pay, isolated from other children and often prevented from attending school. A form of slavery is thus still deeply engrained in their culture.

Haiti today seems paralysed after having endured devastating earthquakes, hurricanes, cholera epidemics, increased fuel prices and food shortages. It is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, with 6 million living below the poverty line and 2.5 million living in extreme poverty. An unstable political context, in need of radical reform, contributes to its extremely vulnerable situation.

The Haitians expected salvation from their misery, as aid agencies and international NGOs poured in with offers of assistance. Perhaps there was too much hope, or simply big promises never delivered. The best efforts have been unable to change Haiti’s fortunes. Unintentionally, what has resulted is a mindset of subserviency, an expectation of handouts. If Haitians want change, they must liberate themselves once more.

That change is possible with effort and resources, including the power of education and role models to demonstrate to the next generation what is possible.

Dr Mary Joy Pigozzi, executive director of Educate A Child (EAC), a global programme of the Education Above All Foundation (EAA), worked in Haiti, experienced four coups and witnessed inexplicable violence. She says: “A piece of my heart remains in that country. Haiti is a country with a hard history. Underlying day to day life is a protracted and silent emergency of significant proportions. A quality education is an essential element in the country’s development. We salute our partners on the ground as they provide children with the opportunity to gain the knowledge and competencies for a better life.”

The Remote Rural Schools Construction project between EAC and buildOn, a non-profit organisation, aims to inspire and train more than 78,000 parents in rural and isolated villages to improve the quality of, and access to, education for 51,000 out-of-school children and 117,000 children at risk of dropping out of primary school.

This will be achieved through school construction, leadership development, role models and community mobilisation. Parents will be empowered to take an active role in bettering their children’s education.

Long-term sustainability is intended for every school that is built. As part of the project, the partnership aims to prepare and support communities in maintaining their schools, both in terms of the physical structure and their ability to conduct classes for children and adults – providing more educational opportunities for decades to come.

Haiti must create a conducive environment for dreamers, its next generation. According to Restavek Freedom foundation, 300,000 of Haiti’s future dreamers like Esperence are still in domestic servitude, mopping floors, doing dishes and laundry in households the length and breadth of the country.

Haiti does, in fact, have much of the expertise and talent it needs to rewrite its history. Many citizens just happen to be living abroad, exported to the benefit of other nations. With sustainable educational partnerships, reform of its government and institutions, and the desire of the Haitian people to own their destiny, perhaps Haiti can embark on a period of renaissance once more.

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