February 22, 2021

Elimination of Child Labour: Lessons learnt from child slavery in Haiti

Fiona de Hoog Cius

Declared by the United Nations as the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, 2021 sets out ambitious promises as member states and organisations are asked to reaffirm their commitments to combat harmful forms of child labour, to pledge to work together, sharing best practices. If ever there was a time for international collaboration and the sharing of ideas, solutions and resources, this is it. One thing COVID-19 has taught is the fact that despite our borders and divisions, we are inextricably connected and any effort to abolish anything is futile in isolation.

By Fiona de Hoog Cius, a researcher in Sheffield Hallam University’s Helena Kennedy centre in the department of Law and Criminology where she conducts research in human rights, gender and modern slavery.

Haiti, Port-au-Prince. Miriam is a little 7 year old girl who is a restavek. Photo: Alice Smeets/laif

While child labour, including the Worst Forms of Child Labour, occurs on all five continents, it is concentrated in low-income societies, with Africa and Asia leading the figures and the Americas and Europe following behind. Those living in high-income societies may be forgiven for discounting child labour as a distant and isolated problem, with few implications in their lives. However, this new focus on child labour in 2021 provides the opportunity to reframe the issue, to establish global societal connections and to trace those invisible links between the symptom of child labour and the societal illnesses that affect us all on a global level, namely, our economic structures which severely disadvantage the most vulnerable people on our planet.

According to global figures provided by the ILO, child labour has been decreasing over the last two decades. While this is undoubtedly good news, this is not the time to become complacent as we still have a lot to understand about child labour in order to ensure that its elimination is both possible and sustainable. This understanding has been taking shape through the international community’s discussions around defining child labour, contextualising it within the parameters of culture, economic need and the limits of what are acceptable experiences for children. This is evidenced in the fact that while there are acceptable forms of work for children in certain contexts (referred to as ‘children in employment’), the term ‘child labour’ usually references work which interferes with the growth and development of the child, in many cases interfering with education. Child labour is further discussed in a category referred to as ‘hazardous work’ which is ‘likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children‘, including child slavery such as sexual exploitation, debt bondage, domestic servitude as well as children in armed conflict. While it is important to acknowledge that children working can pose limited threat and should be seen as a necessary part of life in certain circumstances, a clear line separates these practices from child labour and slavery, exploitative crimes which warrant drastic action to eliminate.

A young girl who was a “restvek” now lives in the slum area of Cite-de-Dieu of Port-au-Prince. Photo: Lemoine/Redux/Laif

Different examples of hazardous child labour can be found throughout the world and the types of work and exploitation involved vary just as local contexts do. This is important because, while child labour must be seen as a global issue, we must also acknowledge that we are talking about local systems and the factors making child labour possible are rooted in the localised symptoms of a global social and economic structure. Additionally, while changes must be applied on the global level, it is really by looking at the local, community level reality of child labour that we can recognise what those changes should be and how they can be effectively implemented. Here, we look at one specific example in order to better understand child labour – in this case, child slavery – to ultimately identify root causes and set a calculated course towards its abolition.

In Haiti there exists a system of child domestic slavery, locally known as the restavèk system. The Haitian Kreyòl word ‘restavèk’ is based on the French ‘reste avec’ which means ‘staying with’. It is called this because children in this system are placed into households where they stay and perform domestic work, usually in exploitative, abusive and violent conditions. Mostly girls (around 70%), restavèk children can be as young as five and can stay in these households for years, sometimes into adulthood. The number of children affected is unknown, but it could be up to 500,000, over one in ten Haitian children.

Though children living in people’s homes are subjected to varying degrees of treatment, with some even benefiting in some ways, the word ‘restavèk’ usually represents children in the worst conditions where violence, neglect and abuse occur. The work they are forced to perform is arduous, intensive and often dangerous. Lack of infrastructural development makes life in Haiti extremely challenging, and restavèk children are particularly vulnerable, carrying heavy loads as they fetch water multiple times a day, cook on open fires and visit areas with high street violence. They are also often physically and sexually abused by their captors and household members. Much can be discussed about the restavèk condition, but if our intention is to abolish this system and others like it, we need to look at its root causes, the reasons why it exists in the first place. We must look at the factors which both push and pull children into it.

For the most part, restavèk children come from economically poor households in rural areas and end up in economically poor homes in urban areas. Extreme poverty in rural areas with high numbers of children per family and lack of access to free schooling contribute to parents sending their children to households in urban areas with the hope they will be provided for and sent to school. However, restavèk children end up serving in homes that are also severely affected by poverty and are rarely provided for in any substantial way or sent to school. Upon closer inspection of the social and economic causes of the restavèk system, it is notable that women’s place and roles in society form part of the restavèk context in extremely important ways. The thread that links the different stages of the trafficking process – from recruitment to enslavement – is rooted in the socio-economic position of poor women, both in rural and urban areas. The work performed by restavèk children falls within women’s gendered responsibilities and it therefore makes sense that those in charge of restavèk children, subjecting them to exploitation and abuse, are women.

Gender inequality and economically poor women’s living conditions form the bases of the restavèk system’s root causes. Children are sent away from their homes because of poverty in rural areas where the consequences of high birth rates are felt predominantly by women. Many mothers of restavèk children are single parents, trapped in a cycle in which they exchange sex for the hopes of being cared for by a male partner, resulting in pregnancies and very often, absent fathers. The resulting children as well as children from other poor rural households, are those most vulnerable to being trafficked into the restavèk system. This is connected to the ‘feminization of poverty’ and the ways in which women disproportionately bear the costs of childrearing in contexts where the labour market and social structures favour men. This is not unique to Haiti, affecting societies across the world, particularly in the Global South. 

Haiti, Port-au-Prince, In Haiti are over 300,000 Restavek. Photo: Alice Smeets/laif

Gender inequalities also play a part in the factors that pull children into the restavèk system. Economically poor women in urban areas need to juggle gendered household and childcare responsibilities with the need to spend large amounts of time outside the home trying to earn money – street-vending for the most part. For the majority of the Haitian population, life and survival are extremely challenging due to the depth of poverty many experience. Women face an exceptionally difficult struggle as they are more likely to be living in extreme poverty, to have a number of children in their care and to face gender-based violence, inequality and sexual exploitation or abuse. This not only explains the space which restavèk children occupy, as their labour fills certain gaps in their captors’ lives, but it also goes some way to explain how the hardship and frustration experienced by women might emerge as a visceral rage which can come out as violence and abuse towards restavèk children. This does not excuse the treatment of restavèk children, but it provides important context to understand the root causes of the system and the gendered socio-economic factors which need to be addressed in order to abolish it.

The example of child domestic slavery in Haiti and its gendered root causes represents one system of child labour among many across the world. However, it is important to recognise and investigate child labour locally, among the people affected, to be able to truly understand and imagine the ways in which global society can come together to combat and abolish it. While there are differences in the societies where child labour is prominent, there are also threads that connect them. Gender inequality and the hardship of women in low-income societies may be one of the most important ways to look at systems of child labour and their root causes. As women tend to be assigned primary caring responsibilities for children, it is logical that we would look at gendered experiences of poverty, both on local and global levels, to better understand and address child labour worldwide.