In Haitian Creole they are called "restaveks" (from French rester avec - to stay with) because they live with a family that is not their own. Rather than foster children, they are like slaves to their host families. 

Between 180,000 to 300,000 children in Haiti - the number varies with the source - work as domestic servants. Between eight and 10 per cent of Haitians under the age of 18 are in this situation which denies them basic rights.


A NEW LIFE: Some of the children Foyer Maurice Sixto staff work with in Haiti. PICTURE: © Manuel Quintero/WCC


"(T)hey spend their days doing backbreaking housework, frequently beaten when their work is not found satisfactory enough by their foster parents."

- Wenes Jeanty, executive director of Foyer Maurice Sixto

These children represent the most vulnerable social sector in a country plagued by dire poverty, huge ecological degradation, blatant corruption and recurrent political instability. Many of them are born to big and destitute families in the countryside, and their parents send them to a host family hoping they will be adequately fed and cared for. 

"Instead, they spend their days doing backbreaking housework, frequently beaten when their work is not found satisfactory enough by their foster parents", said Wenes Jeanty, executive director of the care centre Foyer Maurice Sixto, speaking to a Living Letters team from the World Council of Churches (WCC). 

"Living Letters" are small international ecumenical teams travelling to locations around the world where Christians strive to overcome violence. At the end of November one such a team of Christians from France, the Netherlands, Lebanon, Canada and Cuba visited the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince and other areas affected by recent hurricanes. 

The team spent some time at the Foyer Maurice Sixto care centre to learn more about the plight of domestic child slaves, victims of a bond servitude deeply rooted in the country's history. 

Many "restaveks" lose contact with their biological families. Some are passed from one host family to another without their consent, and without their parents being informed. Physical and psychological abuses are common, explained Jeanty.

Foyer Maurice Sixto was founded in 1989 with the assistance of Terre des Hommes, a Swiss-based international charity. The centre was named after Maurice Sixto (1919-1984), a well-known Haitian intellectual who scorned the national elites for their abuse of domestic child servants.

"Our mission is to assist children and youth who are forced to leave their biological families to be placed with host families. After finishing their labour at home, they come to the Foyer for education, animation and handicraft."

Located in Carrefour, a poor and densely populated district in the south of Port-of-Prince, the Foyer works with some 300 children, mostly girls. There they get a hot meal daily, and medical and dental assistance in the nearby clinic where Haitian doctors offer their services free of charge. 

The Foyer staff also work with host families, in an effort to make them sensitive and responsive to the needs of their child servants. "We tell them that all children are equal and have the same rights", said Jeanty.

There is no ready-made solution to this complex issue in a country with a rapidly growing population, half of which lives below the international poverty line of one US dollar a day, and with 76 percent living on less than two dollars a day.

"Regrettably, these children cannot just be released from this bond of servitude. There are no resources to cater for their needs, nor can they be sent back to their biological families, neither better, caring families can be found to host them", he explained.

Meanwhile, the Foyer Mauricio Sixto guarantees that at least some of Haiti's "restaveks" have the opportunity and the time to play, to express themselves and to enjoy their own identities. "We endeavoured to give them back the childhood to which they are entitled", concluded Jeanty. 

At the end of the visit, the members of the Living Letters team committed themselves to denounce the plight of these modern domestic slaves. "Through its member churches, the WCC should be able to advocate for these children vis-à-vis governments and international organizations," said Genevieve Jacques, leader of the Living Letters team. 

This article was first published on the World Council of Churches website. Manuel Quintero, from Cuba, is director of the Frontier Internship in Mission programme based in Geneva, Switzerland.