PORT-AU-PRINCE, Dec 4 (TrustLaw) - Dayana Denois was always the last to go to bed and the first to wake up. By dawn, she had washed the dishes and clothes, cleaned and swept the floor and emptied the chamber pots.
“I didn’t know what resting meant. Even when I was sick, I’d never get a break,” Denois said, recalling the years she spent living with her aunt in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince.
“She didn’t care if I was tired or not. She kept telling me to do things. She beat me with electric cables, shouted at me, punched and slapped me on the face,” the 12-year-old said.
Denois was a “restavek”, from the French “rester avec” or “to stay with”, a Haitian Creole word that refers to the practice of parents giving away children they are too poor to feed and look after.
Mostly from rural areas, these children are sent to stay with wealthier relatives and acquaintances in the hope they will be given a better life and sent to school. But instead many of them are treated as little more than slaves.
The irony is not lost in a country that was the first in the Americas to abolish slavery more than 200 years ago.
Experts say the number of restaveks accelerated after the massive earthquake on the Caribbean island nation in 2010.
“Many children lost their families. They didn’t have a place to sleep and have someone to take care of them. And they met people who put them in domestic servitude,” said Marline Mondesir, who founded a refuge for restavek children.
The International Labour Organisation estimates that one in 10 Haitian children is a restavek - across the country that amounts to around 300,000 individuals.
For Denois, four years of verbal and physical abuse finally ended when a concerned neighbor put her in touch with Haiti’s social services, which referred her to the Action Centre for Development.
An hour’s drive from Port-au-Prince, the refuge is home to nearly 100 former restaveks and street children.
Mondesir, who founded the centre in 1994, says poverty fuels the system of slavery. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere; nearly 80 percent of Haitians live on less than $2 a day.
“When a mother has eight children, living with no electricity and little food, taking care of all her children and sending them all to school is very difficult,” Mondesir said.
“The mother has no choice but to send some away. It’s a very sad situation for many mothers. They tell me, ‘I have no work and no money. I have too many mouths to feed’.”
Middlemen, or “koutchye”, as they are known in Creole, are sometimes paid to recruit restaveks for host families living in the affluent neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince.
But restaveks are also found living in the slums, where the lack of water and electricity means demand for child labour is high. These families, though poor, tend to be better off than those living in rural areas, and use children sent by their country relatives as restaveks in their homes.
The children are often seen going about their daily chores in the capital: carrying buckets of water on their heads or shopping at the market, lugging charcoal and firewood.
The restavek system is driven by a combination of long-standing economic and social problems in Haiti, from widespread poverty and high unemployment to a lack of family planning and health care in rural areas.
Campaigners say the failure of the Haitian authorities to focus on the rights of children or enforce existing laws against child labour is a big contributor.
The government protests it is addressing the restavek problem by helping rural women and promoting free education.
“The government believes the best way to fight this problem is to empower poor mothers living in rural areas and to help those mothers so they don’t have to give their children away,” said Guy Delva, secretary of state for communications for the government of President Michel Martelly.
Initiatives include food aid and small loans to mothers as part of a $125-million-a-year state-funded programme, and a government drive to provide free education and school meals to all Haitian children.
But the restavek tradition could not exist if it was not accepted, or at least tolerated, in Haitian culture.
It is not uncommon for high society brides to ask for a little person - “ti moun” in Creole - for a wedding present.
“Some families believe they’re doing their restavek children a favor by saving them from living on the streets and a life of hunger in the countryside. Some families do send their restaveks to school and feed them,” said Mondesir.
But this is more the exception than the rule, she said. Most restaveks arrive at her refuge unable to read and write, malnourished and with scars from beatings.
Sexual abuse, including rape, is not uncommon.
“They’ve all been deprived of love and maternal affection,” said psychologist Luckenson Dardompre, who works and lives at the refuge.
“But the source of their trauma is the mistreatment they’ve received for years, including rape and sexual abuse. Many are beaten by the families they live with, by the father, mother, uncles and aunts.”
The abuse, isolation and loneliness restaveks have endured is hard for them to overcome, he said.
“Some have suicidal thoughts. Other children will tell you about the abuse they’ve experienced using exactly the same words every time for weeks. It’s something they can’t forget,” Dardompre said.
The spacious and clean refuge, with its mountain and sea views, is a safe haven for the children. Here they receive three meals a day, go to school and play.
Inside the girls’ plain dormitory are rows of neatly made bunk beds. For the first time in her life, Denois can sleep on a proper bed and not on the floor. She cherishes her few belongings - a toothbrush and cup, a teddy bear, some pens and a change of clothes - which she keeps in her own locker.
“Before I never had the time to play and now I do. No-one bothers me. I found people that love me, they give me what I need,” Denois said.
At the canteen during lunchtime, the only sound that can be heard is the clatter of forks on plates as children tuck into a meal of rice and beans.
After lunch, the children play dominoes, cards, and a game of musical chairs. Some crowd around a book to hear the story of Aladdin read aloud by a teacher. Several girls play with a doll’s house, others plait each others’ hair.
“Some children when they first arrive here, go through rubbish bins looking for food,” said Dardompre. “The routine of breakfast, lunch and dinner, brushing their teeth in the morning, washing their hands - this is all new to them.”
Mondesir and her staff do their best to give the children an education. Inside the brightly painted green and pink classrooms, they learn how to use computers, to read and write, and other skills like sewing.
Mondesir hopes it will allow the children to fend for themselves and get a job when they leave the refuge at 18. But in a country where one in every two adults is unemployed, few will find decent jobs.
The long-term aim of the refuge is to reunite children with their biological parents. Social workers often go to the countryside to track down their families. The children’s yearning to be with their mothers again is strong.
Meanwhile, the healing continues.
“We can’t totally erase the trauma these children have but we can diminish the trauma they feel by getting them to play and make friends,” Dardompre said. “But their wounds are very deep. The wounds have become part of their souls and spirit.”
(TrustLaw is a global news service covering human rights and governance issues and run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters)
Editing by Katie Nguyen and Sonya Hepinstall