In the months after the disastrous January 2010 Haiti earthquake, a lot of the Church World Service (CWS) staff started learning about the plight of “restaveks” ― Haitian children and young people working in some type of indentured servitude.
It took a major disaster for them to discover this very sad dynamic in Haitian society ― in a country where half of the country’s population is under the age of 20, tens of thousands are not in school getting an education, but instead working as maids and domestic servants.
So, it was gratifying that as part of its post-earthquake emergency response, CWS worked with Haitian partners to support vocational education programs for young people who had worked as restaveks.
A key locale for this was the Ecumenical Center for Peace and Justice, known by the French acronym FOPJ, the site of training classes for cooks, hairdressers, masons and electricians.
One of the trainees was Mikency Jean, 22 at the time, a native of the northern city of Cape Haitian. She had come to the capital of Port-au-Prince at age 11 to work as a restavek for her aunt. What did that mean day in and day out? Working 12-hour days, cleaning and cooking without pay.
But Jean was determined to make more of her life and her training at the center was giving her experience in learning the skills to be a professional chef.
She and her classmates knew that their training was no guarantee for a better life in Haiti ― in Haiti, there are precious little guarantees of anything. Still, the training was preparation for something better and was one of several ways CWS did its best to help young Haitians who knew “the restavek life.”
But in spite of these improvements, more than 300,000 Haitian children still work as restaveks. Girls outnumber boys significantly, and some are as young as 8 years old. Those of both genders are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their employers. Those that can run away eventually do, but many eventually end up on the streets and become exposed to other types of risks, including child trafficking.
Getting out of domestic service remains but a distant dream for many children who work as domestic servants. FOPJ has helped dozens of young children through their vocational programs, but also understood that its programs alone could not do it all. That is why FOPJ joined Aba System Restavek (Down with the Restavek System), a local network of some 20 local Haitian organizations all dedicated to helping children in this situation. As its name suggests, ASR is determined to not just help individual children, but to completely eradicate the practice.
ASR has already achieved a lot. It lobbied the Haitian government to declare Nov. 17 National Day for the Abolition of the Restavek System. This is now observed in Haiti every year and restavek children themselves take the lead in calling for education, respect for their rights and protection.
As a network of more than 18 local organizations, ASR raises awareness about the problem of child domestic service locally and internationally and works to strengthen the capacity of its members like FOPJ, to improve their services to affected children. Through its members, it helps reintegrate children into their biological families and provides practical and financial support to the parents, to prevent them from sending their children away again.
ASR also drafted a protocol for the “Prevention of Child Domestic Service and Protection and Reintegration of Affected Children” which last November was ratified by more than 24 local organizations that work with restavek children, as well as governmental bodies and U.N. organizations that work in Haiti.
And last November, Emile Brutus, an ASR consultant, came to Washington, D.C. At a Capitol Hill briefing hosted by Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., Emile reminded U.S. policy makers about the need to place vulnerable children in domestic service at the very top of their priorities for Haiti.
This is a great beginning ― but so much more remains to be done. Through Mickency Jean’s inspiring story, we know that the Haitian child domestic workers who await opportunities and change can yet find them. CWS will continue to work with FOPJ and ASR to ensure that happens.
Chris Herlinger is CWS’s senior writer and is the co-author of “Rubble Nation: Haiti’s Pain, Haiti’s Promise.” Jasmine Huggins is the Washington-based policy and advocacy officer for Haiti at CWS.