Restavek – “One who stays with” is the word for a child slave in Haiti.


Ignoring Haiti and its problems is par for the course in the United States, even when the U.S. has played a role in creating them. There was a flurry of concern around the time of the January 2010 earthquake, with monies raised by a variety of charities…some legit and some suspect, but Haiti news fell out of the headlines, and for the most part is ignored. Before the earthquake there were a host of problems and some have worsened since then. Such is the case of the “restaveks“, nearly 300,000 children who work in a state of indentured servitude which has been deemed modern day slavery by international rights organizations.


Restavek is a form of modern-day slavery that persists in Haiti, affecting one in every 15 children. Typically born into poor rural families, restavek children are often given to relatives or strangers. In their new homes, they become domestic slaves, performing menial tasks for no pay.

In the Creole language, “restavek” means “to stay with.” Yet for the children who are called restavek, that definition is incomplete. For them, it means:

To stay with… humiliation and abuse.

To stay with… alone, in a family that offers no love.

To stay with… an incessant and knawing hunger.

To stay with… the feeling that no matter what, their voices, their lives, will never count.

The reasons that the restavek practice persists in Haiti are complex – ranging from harsh economic conditions to the cultural attitudes toward children. But every morning another child wakes up to begin his or her life of hardship, it becomes all the more urgent that this practice be stopped.

Ask the children what they need, and many of them will offer a simple reply:

“All I want,” they say, “is to be human.”


As more and more human rights organizations world wide, investigate and try to stop slavery and human trafficking, more attention is being paid to the practice of child slavery in Haiti.

On the Global Slavery Index, Haiti is currently ranked Number 3.

Jean-Robert Cadet, is a former Restavek and author of the book “Restavec: From Haitian Slave to Middle Class American.”


When Cadet was 15 his owners immigrated to the United States and he joined them, again as their domestic servant. He was turned out of the house when his owners realized that domestic servitude was stigmatized in American society and that he would be required to attend school alongside their own children.


Despite this abuse within his own culture and the racism he faced from American society, Cadet went on to finish high school, join the United States army, finish university, get married and start a family and earn a master’s degree in French literature.

Published in English in 1998, Cadet’s memoir, Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle Class American, contributed significantly to the slim body of literature written by survivors of contemporary slavery. Especially striking is Cadet’s bravery in so frankly describing his experience since, “In Haitian society, [being a restavek is] the lowest possible status. It’s like being a dog. And no one wants to reveal that he was once a dog.”

The book depicts the lasting psychological and social damage inflicted on those held in slavery and the suffering that persists from constant physical and emotional abuse. Cadet’s overwhelming sense of not belonging—in society, in family, in relationships—is the most acutely painful reminder that he, in his own words, “never had a childhood.”



Organizations like Restavek Freedom are working to address the situation of Haiti’s children.

These children wrote a letter to current President Martelli 2 years ago.

Appeals to Martelli regime, and organized grassroots pressure, finally began to have an effect last August with a new law Haiti Enacts World’s Newest Anti-Trafficking Law

”After about a decade of effort, we finally have an anti-trafficking law in Haiti,” says FTS Haiti Coordinator Smith Maxime. “It is an important milestone,” he adds, “but we have a long road ahead to get this law implemented. A national committee against human trafficking has to be formed. Law enforcement officers have to be trained and the public has to be informed about the new infraction.”


How does this law confront restavek slavery?


By defining the existence of “trafficking in persons” for minors as exploitation of any variety against those who are under 18 years of age, the law recognizes a person’s inherent vulnerability because of their minor status without the burden of proof on the use of force, fraud or coercion. This confronts restavek slavery in that minors are shown as naturally vulnerable, unable to give their voluntary consent to labor and easily put into a position of exploitation. For those who have reached the age of 18 within restavek slavery, this law also add protections through the definition of “servitude” as the submission status or a condition of dependency of a person unlawfully forced or coerced by a person providing a service to an individual or others, and who has no other alternative than to provide such service, with the law directly including domestic services


Are there still gaps in Haitian law that need to be addressed to end restavek child domestic slavery?


While the new Haitian law sets out a clear understanding of the crime of trafficking in persons and the potential punishments for perpetrators of this crime, it is still unclear how the National Committee will implement prevention and awareness campaigns, as well as how victim services will be executed. It is also, unclear on how to deal with children who are currently in servitude.


Comprehensive victim services require a strong infrastructure to ensure the physical safety of victims through law enforcement, the psychological safety and recovery of victims through health services, and employable skills, education and basic housing and needs of victims through social services. If a victim is not properly reintegrated into society then there is the possibility that the individual will be placed in a situation of exploitation and trafficking in persons again due to their continued situation of vulnerability.


There are efforts in Haiti to organize and educate rural families about the practice, and to supply agronomists to help with increasing food production, which will alleviate pressure on rural parents who think sending some of their children to the city will reduce the number of mouths to feed.

Haiti’s Model Communities Fight Restavek Child Slavery from <a href=””>Free the Slaves on Vimeo


The Model Communities program has prompted parents to retrieve their children from restavek slavery, and it has prevented other children from becoming restaveks. This video features deeply moving interviews with families who are taking a stand against child slavery.


Other problems entwined with the restavek situation are deforestation, and erosion, the undermining of the Haitian rice economy…and one of the greatest social problems is violence against women.

Please do not forget Haiti. Lend a hand by sharing this information.

“Men anpil, chay pa lou.”

Many hands [make] the load lighter.


Cross-posted from Black Kos

Editor’s Note: Post time changed from May 12, 2015 at 4:00 pm for front page promotion.


  1. Here’s hoping more people will join the fight against slavery and trafficking in humans – especially children.

  2. Thank you for bringing attention to this. Americans have a short attention span when it comes to the problems of other countries. We read the news of the day, say prayers for the victims of earthquakes and tsunamis, maybe donate a few dollars to a fund, and then move on. Maybe it is because the problems seem so intractable or so foreign to us.

    But child slavery should be an easy concept to understand and it should call to all of us to forcefully support efforts like those going on in Haiti.

  3. My great grandmother was a “hired girl” for a year in her teens. She was lucky that the “woman of the house” was both kind and understanding but that’s about as good as it got. The daughters of the house, when their mother wasn’t looking, treated her like dirt and the “man of the house” would put work on her he would have trouble doing and then taunt her for not being able to do it. She was lucky in two other things – she wasn’t sexually molested and her mother needed her labor more than the money when the next baby came so she got to come home after that one year. That’s as close to this as anything in my family history (that I know of) and that’s bad enough. This is so much worse. Man’s inhumanity to Man is appalling – to children is worse than appalling.

  4. Thanks, Denise! Shared the post on FB and put Cadet’s memoir on my wish list at Amazon.

    Don’t know how to rec the post and comments, otherwise I would!

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