Fourteen-year-old Haitian Sonite Edmond despondently recalls being forced to work as a restavek when she was just six years old. Meaning “to stay with” in Creole, restaveks are children working in domestic slavery as Sonite was forced to when she went to “stay with” her godmother in Port-au-Prince.
“Restaveks typically come from low-income families in which parents or caregivers lack adequate resources to care for their children and so send them to live with other families in the hopes that they will be given a better life,” explains Debbie Landis, head of child protection at World Vision’s Haiti Emergency Response.
But life for restaveks is rarely better. These children usually work long hours without reprieve and are provided with insufficient food, clothing, and other basic needs. They also must forgo their education in order to work and are often targets for physical and sexual abuse.
“She promised to send me to school. I kept waiting. For two years, I worked in her house cleaning and looking after the house. I never got to go to school,” Sonite tells of living with her godmother.
Instead, Sonite was put to work sweeping, mopping and taking care of others living in the house. Six years old and working with only the help of her godmother’s daughter who lived with them. It was a position that often left Sonite feeling afraid and unsettled.
“There were six people living with my godmother and I had to look after them,” she explains. “Sometimes I was scared in the house.”
Child exploitation is not uncommon in Haiti or countries with similar socioeconomic circumstances, be it in the form of child trafficking and smuggling, sexual abuses, or domestic and forced labour. According to UNICEF, 10 per cent of children in Haiti are forced into domestic work that takes them away from their friends, family, and schoolwork. Three quarters of these restaveks are girls, like Sonite.
Journey Back Home
With World Vision’s support, Sonite had the opportunity to return home to her tiny rural community on La Gonave Island and attend school.
After realizing his daughter was not attending school, Sonite’s father rescued her from her godmother’s care and brought her back home. He then sought help from World Vision to get her the education she needed and deserved, enrolling her at L’ecole National de Tamarin, which World Vision helped build.
She recognizes the value of her education, and the education of children her age who have also suffered as restaveks, including some of her friends.
“It’s not fair that some kids get to go to school and others don’t,” says Sonite. “As long as I’m alive I’d like to keep going to school. I want to keep learning, because without this you’re nothing.”
Many families in Sonite’s community struggle to afford adequate schooling for their children, with about 85 percent of schools in Haiti being private and requiring uniforms and books that exceed these families’ income.
A Brighter—and Fashionable—Future
Now fourteen-years-old and in her third year of secondary school, Sonite is enthusiastic about her own education and passionate about promoting youths’ right to education.
Though her favourite subject is French grammar, Sonite hopes to become a fashion designer.
“I’d love to be a dressmaker. It’s what I like. I’d like to help my community to create fashions,” she says.
At the end of the school day, homework and household chores await.
“There is not much time for relaxing and recreation. We work most of the time. Even kids have to work.”
But she is free from being a restavek and closer to attaining the better life she and her father envision.
Photos: Mary Kate MacIsaac/World Vision