The chief United Nations investigator on slavery signalled Wednesday that Haiti–the only nation born of a slave revolt–has entrenched child enslavement through its long-denounced “restavek” system.
The finding by Gulnara Shahinian after she toured the Caribbean nation raises pressure on Canada and other major aid donors to the country to focus more on eliminating the blight.
Named for the Haitian francophone Creole term meaning “stay with,” the system is supposed give parents unable to care for their children an opportunity to send them to more affluent relatives or strangers in urban areas. There, the children would receive food, shelter and education in exchange for “light” housework.
But Ms. Shahinian said the practice subjects children to multiple forms of abuse, including economic exploitation, sexual violence and corporal punishment. Hours of work typically run from early in the morning until the last adult in the home goes to bed at night, witnesses have said.
While family-to-family placements have long occurred, paid recruiters now scour the country looking for children to traffic both within and outside Haiti, Ms. Shahinian found.
The majority of the demand has also shifted in recent years from wealthy families to poor ones, she reports.
“This practice is a severe violation of the most fundamental rights of the child,” said Ms. Shahinian, an Armenian national.
“[It] reinforces a vicious cycle of violence. It should be stopped immediately.”
The International Labour Organization estimates that 300,000 children work as restaveks in Haiti, population eight million.
Ms. Shahinian reports children are delivered to work for urban families “as child slaves in domestic work and outside the home in markets.”
A UN summary of her visit says witnesses gave her “various accounts” of the practice as she visited the capital, Port-au-Prince, Les Cayes in the southwest, and Ouanaminthe on the northern part of the border with the Dominican Republic.
She “expressed deep concern,” says the summary. “She considers it to be a modern form of slavery.”
As part of the $555-million in Canadian aid to Haiti over the past five years, the Canadian International Development Agency has provided millions of dollars to cover school fees and lunches for thousands of Haitian youngsters from impoverished backgrounds.
But Ms. Shahinian said more needs to be done to give poor families the means to keep their children and send them to school.
“The issue should be put urgently on the highest priority agenda of the [Haitian] government and the international community,” said the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery.
Haiti is Canada’s biggest overseas aid focus after Afghanistan.
“The agency is aware of the restavek problem, and we’re investing in a wide range of programs that we believe will attack it and other ills in Haiti,” said Jean-Luc Benoit, spokesman for International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda.
Ms. Shahinian acknowledged that decades of political instability and a series of recent natural disasters “have further deepened poverty and enhanced human insecurity” in Haiti, the western hemisphere’s poorest country.
She also noted the Haitian government had taken some steps to try to protect the rights of restavek children, despite being cash-strapped.
But a law stating employers must pay people from age 15 for work has often resulted in restaveks being thrown onto the streets at that age.
Among a series of recommendations, Ms. Shahinian called on the Haitian government to place greater administrative focus on “vulnerable children.”
She also called on the government to ensure “compulsory and free primary education,” and to help children in rural areas gain better access to schools.