THE BLOG

Tens of Thousands of Haitian Children Are Trapped in Child Labor Nightmare

06/12/2014 11:50 am ET | Updated Aug 12, 2014

As the sun sets in the West, the sea beyond Port-au-Prince turns a dreamy orange. This view of the ocean from Haiti's downtown capital can seem tranquil, but for tens of thousands of restavek children dusk marks a deepening nightmare.

One of these girls is 9-year-old Ana. I met Ana while working with restaveks and street children in Port-au-Prince. Two years earlier, at 7 years old, she was sent by her parents to the city to live with distant relatives. As the oldest of four children from a poor rural family without access to education or basic health care, Ana's parents decided to give her away, hoping she would have a chance at a better life in the city. This decision to send away one child in hopes of dedicating their few resources to feeding and caring for their three other children is tragically common in rural Haiti. The National Coalition for Haitian Rights estimates that 300,000 are working as child slaves in Haiti.

If waking up each morning before dawn to begin a day of backbreaking work weren't horrifying enough for a 9-year-old, nightfall brings new terrors: sexual abuse by one of the men in the household. Too many children fear the dark because of the constant threat of abuse.

June 12 is World Day Against Child Labor, when we pause to think about the estimated 5.5 million children below the age of 17 who are victims of forced labor. In Haiti, there is a long history of restaveks dating back to colonial times -- the term comes from the French "reste avec", or "stay with." While the practice has become less common in wealthier households, restaveks are increasingly found in poor communities where they are harder to find and help.

Haitian law prohibits the employment of minors under 12 as live-in domestic workers. The Haitian Government has signed international pacts including the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child barring child slavery and servitude. However, the problem persists and public opinion has never quite unified against the practice. Without demand, the law is seldom enforced.

Making matters worse, it is widely believed that the earthquake of 2010 led to an increase in the number of restaveks as many displaced families had to go in search of work. Today, however, there is a renewed effort by campaigners to address the restavek issue and protect the rights of these children.

So what can be done while we work to build sentiment among Haitians against this horrifying practice? We must start by addressing the immediate problems. We need to get health care services to these youth. As Haitians increasingly have access to things like primary health care, rape counseling, HIV testing and emergency contraception, we need to make sure that these services are reaching these children -- especially those who are suffering abuse. Our improved public health centers now provide psychological and even basic legal support to the victims of physical, verbal or sexual abuse. These services are incredible strides, but we must ensure they are reaching these vulnerable children.

Another solution is in the works. The Haitian government is making universal education for all children a priority. Services like these have the potential to reduce the number of parents who feel they have to give away their children. If parents feel their children have opportunities, they may be more likely to keep them at home.

And there are a lot local and international organizations -- like the Jean R Cadet Restavek Organization and the Restavek Freedom Foundation -- that have sought to provide relief for these children including food and shelter, education, health care and psychological support to help reintegrate them back into society. But the restaveks' needs far outweigh the available support. To prevent future children from suffering as restaveks, advocates are also working to push even stronger legislation to protect these children.

I have worked for 16 years to improve sexual and reproductive health in Haiti. Protecting these children, and providing better support to families so they don't see giving up their children as the best option, is the only way to break the cycle of poverty and abuse that afflicts my homeland.