Haiti still ailing from child 'slavery' epidemic

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Fourteen-year-old Rose Manette Sully lives a twisted Cinderella tale. She works from dawn to dusk as a maid for her master. She sleeps on the floor of a tent.

The lanky teen is far from an isolated case in Haiti. She’s just one among tens of thousands of child servants in Haiti who endure what the United Nations calls a modern form of slavery=.

Underaged domestic help is everywhere in Port-au-Prince’s tent cities, which formed after last year’s devastating earthquake and remain because of the glacial pace of reconstruction. The January 2010 quake caused many more of these young indentured servants to be put to work. And now, their lives are harder than ever before, experts said.

Click here to view a slideshow of ‘restaveks’ — one of Haiti’s horrors

Before the earthquake, child servants lived and worked in Port-au-Prince’s homes. Today, many, like Rose Manette, serve their masters in tents.

With the nation’s entire infrastructure in disrepair — schools and neighborhoods destroyed — fewer of these children are going to school, and neighbors less frequently look out for their welfare, according to Nicole Muller César, founder of the Institute for Human and Community Development, a school in Port-au-Prince for slave children.

The children also face higher risks of being neglected and abused.

“Now, because of the tent situation, they are more exposed,” she said. “Anybody can do anything to them, without having someone say ‘Stop! You cannot do that.’”

With the birth rate tripling after the quake, according to the United Nations Population Fund, the number of these children, known as restaveks (from the French “to stay with”), could grow in the coming years as more families struggle to feed their children.

Haiti’s president-elect Michel Martelly, the right-wing pop star who takes office this weekend, has pledged to make public education free in Haiti, but so far he has made no promise to otherwise help these child servants.

The children haven’t received much attention from international aid groups, either.They are everywhere, and nowhere, in a sense: They may as well be invisible.

Some never reunite with their mothers, and they often don’t get loving physical contact from the adults they live with. ‘Owners’ are often unaffectionate, even if the host family is the child’s aunt or other biological relative, César said.

“They don’t have a life,” she said. “And nobody seems to care because it’s okay, it’s no problem, we’re used to the system.”

Restaveks often eat different food from other children in a household, wear cheaper clothes and are often not allowed to play with their peers.

In Haiti, “there’s nothing lower than a ‘restavek’ child except a dog,” said Glenn Smucker, a cultural anthropologist and consultant.Haiti’s ‘restavek’ system is rooted in colonial times, when slavery was a way of life. Rebels kicked out the French in 1804 and created the world’s first independent black republic. Sadly, the system that revolutionaries worked so hard to crush lives on today.

Nearly a quarter million children were working as child slaves even before the earthquake left more orphans in the shattered capital, a November 2009 report by the Pan American Development Foundation and USAID found. While Unicef has estimated 300,000 restaveks, the children are difficult to count and recent numbers are hard to come by.

Restaveks are typically unpaid — instead receiving schooling, food and shelter for their work. But the promise of education is often not kept, or the ‘school’ may last just two hours a day. Rose Manette worked out a somewhat unusual arrangement with her cousin involving a small stipend of less than a dollar a day, with most of that money going back to her mother, who lives in poverty in the countryside.

MSNBC: The lost children of Haiti

Jolet Deus, 21, Rose Manette’s ‘master’ and cousin, doesn’t mince words when she talks about their relationship.

“She’s my possession. I do what I want with her,” Deus said from within her tent in a camp run by actor turned activist Sean Penn, which sits on a golf course once reserved for the rich.

Jolet was herself a restavek when she was a girl, yet she treats Rose Manette every bit as her personal slave, once drinking a cold bottle of water given to the girl.

When asked what she likes most about Port-au-Prince, where she moved from the countryside in January, Rose Manette utters a heart-stopping response: “school.” She, like many restavek children, had hoped to attend school in the city — but says she has never been.

Rose Manette grew up in a one-room hut in the lush jungle outside of Lascahobas, a two-hour drive from Port-au-Prince. Even though the capital city is full of misery, and the free food brought by aid groups is long gone in many camps, those in the countryside still see opportunity there. Children vanish into slavery all the time, local families say.

But Rose Manette is not without dreams. She hopes to earn enough money to buy candy to sell on the street. From there, she would go to school at night.

When Rose Manette led reporters on the long journey to meet her mother, Sonia Deus, the woman was shocked to see her.

“My heart beat when I saw her,” Sonia Deus said. “When you see people you’re not supposed to see, you think it’s news of a death.”

The mother of six became destitute when her husband died in 2009 and the cost of his funeral forced her to sell family property.

Before that, the family raised goat, pigs, chickens, corn, beans, yam, sugar, and fruit. Nicknamed “Rejected” by neighbors because of her extreme poverty, Sonia Deus now grows only corn, beans and coffee.

She worries that something bad will happen to her adolescent daughter in the capital, but she doesn’t see another way.

“We are farmers. We work on the land. Sometimes our children can’t wait for the land to give money,” Rose Manette’s mother said. “They have to go elsewhere.”

Karen Keller and Jennifer Weiss are independent journalists. Keller’s work has appeared in Fortune, Esquire.com and other publications. Weiss’ work has appeared in WSJ.com and The New York Times, among other publications.