[Opinion] – Haiti’s forgotten children

In the last month, the small Caribbean nation of Haiti has flickered as a blip on the map of international crises thanks to its recent clashes with four storms, including Hurricane Ike. The aftermath of these storms has left 151,000 refugees and more the 300 people dead, though the government stopped counting bodies days ago. Deemed the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti has struggled through deadly food riots, ravishing floods and violent storms. But through these challenges, some citizens have created another type of prosperous endeavor âÄî that of child slavery. And this business is sure to claim the lives of more Haitian children then a hurricane ever could. Child exploitation always increases in the wake of extreme events such as political instability or natural disasters, and even though such abuse occurs all over the world âÄî including the United States âÄî child exploitation is often heightened in the face of extreme poverty. HaitiâÄôs population is almost 9 million people, and approximately 80 percent of them live on less than $2 a day. The country was already struggling because of rising food prices, and the recent natural disasters only exacerbate their dwindling resources. Desperate Haitians are being forced to seek other means of income in order to survive. The restavèk system âÄî a type of forced domestic servitude where a child is sold to a master âÄî is an exploitive system that currently controls between 250,000 and 300,000 children in Haiti. This type of modern-day slavery involves rural children being turned over by their parents to seemingly trustworthy âÄúhost familiesâÄù in urban cities as household help. Initially, the children are promised food, education and care in return for their work, but when they arrive to their hostsâÄô home, they are treated as domestic slaves. Haitian parents often hand over their child to a host in hopes of giving them a better life. For an offer of about $50 per child and the incentive of education and proper care for that child, single-parent households are tempted to accept. But in reality, they have sold their child to an owner who will never give their child a loving home or allow them to grace a Haitian classroom like they had promised. Unfortunately, parents are often too financially overwhelmed to realize the abuse their children may endure for the rest of their childhood. As a restavèk servant, children are forced to mop floors, wash dishes and look after their hostâÄôs children for 10 to 14 hours a day, all without pay. Along with the grueling labor, physical and sexual abuse is common in restavèk relationships. Children endure strict social rules, some which forbid them from speaking to anyone but their hosts, having friends or actively attending school. Their lives consist of serving their hosts in whatever manner requested. If they disobey, they are beaten, abandoned or sometimes killed. Andre, a restavèk in HaitiâÄôs capital of Port-au-Prince, said he was never given clothing or shoes to work in by his host family and was forced to sleep on the floor. âÄúHis âÄòhost motherâÄô would spit on the ground and tell him he had to finish an errand before the saliva dried,âÄù reported UNICEF. Another boy named Peterson, age 9, recalls his story of abduction at the age of three to the charity Haitian Street Incorporated. âÄúSome people stole me when I was real small and had me working for them, and they would beat me all the time with whatever they got their hands on. They would lift me up and slam me on the floor. Look on my head and see these scars. Sometimes I would pass out.âÄù Though Haiti ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1994, government leaders and international humanitarian groups continue to overlook restavèk children, which make up approximately 10 percent of the population under 18 years old. And though the government does have some child labor regulations, it is not uncommon to see police officers beating abandoned restavèk children who have been turned out on the street. With the recent floods ravaging the countryside and the cost of living soaring higher, Haiti is sure to see a surge in child exploiters looking to take advantage of the vulnerable rural families. But the shadow of Hurricane IkeâÄôs destruction in the Caribbean and United States may eclipse the strife of newly enlisted restavèkâÄôs, whose numbers are sure to explode in the coming months. In a world that has denounced slavery in every form, there are still hundreds of thousands of children being transformed into objects worth trading for labor, sex or domestic housework. Though they may not be our children, cleaning in our homes or living our streets, they deserve to experience a childhood free from oppression and fear that the next natural disaster will steal them away from those they love.