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In Haiti, a better child protection despite excesses

© Julia Spiers for 8e étage

With the expectation to escape their children from extreme poverty, poor Haitian families give their children to middle-class families, running the risk that they could become restaveks, a controversial term for a child used to do domestic chores, even sexual. A practice accentuated by the 2010 earthquake, despite a new national strategy to offer a better protection to them.

"To change Haiti, we must start by changing education", announces in capital letters a graffiti at the entrance to Port-au-Prince. More than eight years after the earthquake of January 12 in 2010, the capital still bears the legacy of the natural disaster that has killed more than 220,000 people and injured 300,000 people. Badly paved roads, empty sidewalks and ruins of rubble as far as the eye can see.

In this Caribbean country, where more than three-quarters of the population lived on less than $ 2 a day in 2005, the earthquake worsened the situation and disrupted the lives of millions of people, children on the front line. According to UNICEF, about 1.26 million of them, representing more than 10% of the country's population, were directly affected by the earthquake. 100,000 became overnight orphans of at least one of their parents. In total, it is estimated that more than 500,000 children no longer live with their biological family. More vulnerable than adults, orphans roaming the streets have become prey of choice for child traffickers ...

The fight for the protection of the child is not a recent struggle in Haiti. It is a long concern for many NGOs in Port-au-Prince. According to Gertrude Sejour, executive director of the Maurice Sixto Foundation, there exists in this country "a cultural practice that partly explains child abuse. The social discourse regards them as small animals, hence the proverb, timoun se ti bèt (Ed, "the child is a small animal"), which goes in this direction. Through our actions, we try to change mentalities on the situation of children in domestic service, better known as restaveks here. We have the impression of being listened to, even if at the moment there is still a lot of work to do with laws that are still in the drawers ", she concludes a bit resigned, wondering soon after the assassination of a person from the foundation if his fight really serves something.

"To fully understand the restaveks phenomenon, we must look at its sociological dimension," says Patrick Saint-Pre, a journalist from Le Nouvelliste, the most famous Haitian newspaper. "Everything is complicated here. Talking about restaveks is taboo, it's an annoying subject. The bourgeois families often have in their house a child who is not theirs and who takes care of household chores. In general, the child goes to public school when the other children are in private institutions, creating a dual-speed education. "Gertrude Séjour goes even further in this analysis: "A restavek is a child who no longer lives with his biological family for various reasons and who will be exploited. Often he does not go to school and does domestic chores above his strength. In the majority of cases, girls are between the ages of 5 and 14 and are subjected to all types of violence: physical violence, psychological violence, verbal abuse, and sexual violence."

"CHILDREN WHO DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE CHILDREN"

Before the earthquake, available figures from different sources reported 170,000 to 300,000 restaveks. They would now be more than 407,000 according to a 2014 study commissioned by UNICEF, twenty NGOs and with the cooperation of the Haitian State. More than half would be in "unacceptable situations" with a glaring lack of care, education and recreation. "Children who do not have the right to be children" according to the NGO World Vision Haiti.

All stakeholders agree that the 2010 earthquake exacerbated pre-existing violations, including separation, abandonment and neglect, and sexual abuse and exploitation. A study by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warned that in 2011, all of the women and adolescent girls surveyed had reported sexual exchange practices to survive in camps.


Haiti remains marked by a profound inequality of classes with 1% of the population controlling nearly half of the wealth. In the country, 90% of education services are administered by the private sector and access to basic social services remains problematic with 40.1% of the population without access to running water and 53.2% having no electricity. This tragic situation explains how families who have lost everything have preferred to give, for love or necessity, their children to third persons, relatives (aunts, godmothers) or strangers, hoping for a better future.

© Julia Spiers for  8e étage

© Julia Spiers for 8e étage

The Creole restavek term is now being questioned by Haitian institutions and humanitarian organizations. Judged as derogatory, he immediately sticks a label to children who are not always abused. They prefer to speak of "children in a state of domesticity" in order to better distinguish between abusive behaviors and those tolerated by the customs of the country.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, the Institute for Social Welfare and Research (IBESR in French), directly attached to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, set up projects to combat the exploitation of minors, including a Haiti without restaveks and the device Yon fanmi pou chak timoun (a family for every child) to find foster families for orphans instead of placing them in children's homes. These places, which can be likened to orphanages in the United States, pose many questions in fact. These establishments are in the majority of cases badly reputed because of numerous cases of proven mistreatment, deplorable hygienic conditions and by the presence of traffickers more attracted by the lure of the gain than the well-being of the child.

In 2015, the Institute for Social Welfare and Research went further in this approach with a National Child Protection Strategy (SNPE in French), a strategy covering the period 2015-2020 with the support of UNICEF and many NGOs. The stated objective is to better coordinate the resources of the different actors. Ariel Villedrouin, IBESR’ General Director, immediately evokes the period of post-earthquake instability: "Before 2010 there were a hundred children's homes. A year later, there were 776. A large market was created where traffickers took advantage of the weakness of state control to do their business. Our role was first to strengthen the legal framework by signing international conventions and creating laws on child adoption and trafficking. As a result, more than 160 of these structures have been shut down, which requires a long process to accompany the hundreds of children concerned by preventing them from ending up on the street, an environment that is conducive to delinquency."

1 IN 5 CHILDREN DOES NOT HAVE A BIRTH ACT

But a major problem remains to have a real impact on the entire society: the lack of money to reach a clear public policy. The budget allocated to the protection of the child is derisory, representing only 0.55% of the national budget. "At IBESR, we have 52,683,560 gourdes (about 818,000 US dollars) per year, 81% of which are for staff salaries and allowances. There are only 10 000 000 gourdes (about 155 000 US dollars) for operating expenses. There is tremendous reliance on funding from UNICEF and NGOs to implement this national strategy, "admits Ariel Villedrouin.

Although the arrival in power of Jovenel Moïse in February 2017 has put an end to political instability with a parliament previously deemed dysfunctional, the work to be done remains considerable. The Senate and the National Assembly have before them an important legislative agenda to catch up with, including a law to be ratified to establish a child protection code. This has been in effect since 1997 with a final version validated by the Council of Ministers in 2015. However, at present, differences between senators prevent the signing of the code and thus its entry into force.

According to Joanitho Jethro Thomas Dubois, protection coordinator for Terre des Hommes, a Swiss NGO, the "biggest challenge is law enforcement. The political will is there with the work of the IBESR and the voice of the first lady, Martine Moïse, strongly committed to this cause, but those who exploit the children are rarely worried by justice. I do not remember having seen in the newspapers or on television the report of a trial on abusive behaviors concerning restaveks... this phenomenon is still subcontracted in my opinion, as if it were normalized." A statement shared by Ariel Villedrouin: "There are still weaknesses to be filled at the judicial level. It is difficult to prove that a child is a victim of exploitation in a family that has welcomed him, even more if they are relatives of the biological family. In case of rape, you can prove the abuse, the rest is more delicate." Eugene Guillaume of the NGO Lumos evokes a lack of popularization: "A child should be able to understand how the law can protect him from abuse and allow him to denounce more easily perverse behavior to punish them."

On a daily basis, the main work of IBESR, UNICEF and NGOs is to participate in advocacy to raise awareness and put more pressure on the Haitian government to ensure that child protection receives a most important budget. Another aspect that is becoming increasingly important is the training of host families through multi-month programs so that children's homes, better controlled, become a last resort. With the help of Canada, UNICEF has been supporting more than 6,000 families since April 2017 to better educate children through a support system aimed at reducing their vulnerability.

At state level, the Child Protection Brigade (BPM in French) has been working with the IBESR since 2012, an emergency number is available to more easily report abuse behavior while the Children's Court can seize a case with three specialized judges in Port-au-Prince. Other advance in early 2017 with a software called National Information System for Child Protection and Safety (SINAPSE), funded by the French’ Embassy to the IBESR in order to create identity cards for children who are not living with their parents. A significant challenge in a country where, according to UNICEF, 19% of children did not have a birth certificate in 2010.

Sébastien Roux

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This article was published in French in May 2018