GONAÏVES, Haiti — Thousands of desperate women pushed and shoved to get at the relief food being handed out on the outskirts of this flooded city last week. Off to the side were the restaveks, the really desperate ones.
As woman after woman hauled off a sack of rice, a bag of beans and a can of cooking oil, the restaveks, a Creole term used to describe Haiti’s child laborers, dropped to their knees to pick up the bits that were inadvertently dropped in the dirt.
The hurricanes and tropical storms that have whipped across the western half of Hispaniola, the island divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in the past month have laid bare the poverty and the deep divisions in Haitian society, where there are rich, poor and downright destitute.
Nobody illustrates that last group better than the restaveks, the thousands of young Haitian children handed over by their poor parents to better-off families, most of whom are struggling themselves.
The term restaveks literally means “stay with,” and that is what the children do with their hosts, working as domestic servants in exchange for a roof over their head, some leftover food and, supposedly, the ability to go to school.
In practice, though, the restaveks are easy prey for exploitation. Human rights advocates say they are beaten, sexually abused and frequently denied access to education, since many host families believe that schooling will only make them less obedient.
Unicef estimates that 300,000 Haitian children were affected by the recent storms, many of them forced to relocate to shelters or rooftops.
But young Haitians suffered significantly even before the skies darkened during Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike, and more than 300 lives were lost. The country has the highest mortality rate for children younger than 5 in the Western Hemisphere, as well as a high death rate among infants and women giving birth. Just slightly over half of school-age children are actually enrolled in school. Attendance among restaveks, of course, is much less than that.
“Many of them are treated like animals,” said a United Nations official who spoke on condition of anonymity because she did not have authority to speak on the delicate issue. “They are second-class citizens, little slaves. You feed them a little and they clean your house for nothing.”
Gonaïves, a city in Haiti’s northwest, was no boomtown when the storms hit, having been devastated by a hurricane in 2004, from which it was still recovering. But that did not stop many poor families from taking in restaveks, the offspring of the poorest of the poor.
“Almost everybody has one,” said one of the women jockeying in the relief food line.
They are children like Widna and Widnise, twin 12-year-old girls who have been in the same Gonaïves home for the past two years.
They get up at dawn to fetch water, collect wood, cook, mop and clean. They watch as their host family’s two children, who are about the same age, eat breakfast and then go off to school. The twins eat nothing in the morning and stay home working.
The twins have it better than most, they say. They are hit on their palms if they are disobedient but do not receive lashings on their head, as they say many of the restaveks in nearby homes receive.
In the evening, they eat with the two other children and sleep on mats on the floor, just as those children do. They had shoes, unlike many of their contemporaries, although they lost those in the flooding.
But the girls said they did not like their situation. There is the teasing they get from other children, who tell them over and over that they will never grow up, that they will always be servant girls.
And they miss their mother, who works in the countryside as a domestic servant and visits the girls when she can. She tells them that she will bring them home as soon as she can afford to feed them.
“Our mother is too poor to take care of us,” said Widna, the more talkative of the pair, adding emphatically, “We don’t want to be restaveks.”
What they wanted most immediately on Thursday afternoon was food. Their host family had fled its flood-damaged home, leaving the girls alone. They arrived at a school in the Praville neighborhood where United Nations relief food was being handed out but were told that only women were allowed in line.
The pint-size girls sat off to the side until they noticed that some rice and beans were being dropped amid all the confusion. The girls looked at each other and then sprang into action with some of the other restaveks, scooping up the specks of food from the ground one by one.