History and the restavek

Why the Restavek system exists: a history of Haiti

CDC Study

According to a study done by the CDC, about 15% of the population of 13-24-year-olds in Haiti are Restaveks. They are children living in domestic servitude, working for long hours every day to perform housework for their host families. They are often neglected and abused in their communities. To understand why the Restavek system thrives in Haiti, one must first understand the country’s tumultuous history.

Haiti’s history

Haiti is located on the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic. Prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the island was home to an indigenous group of people called Taíno. The island was divided into five kingdoms. Experts estimated that there could have been up to a million Taíno people living there before it became a European colony.


In 1492, Columbus and his Spanish settlers established the settlement of La Navidad in modern-day Haiti. They overthrew the indigenous kingdoms and forced the indigenous population into slavery, most of whom worked in the gold mines or plantations to benefit Spain. Many also perished from diseases and massacres. In just 25 years, almost 96% of the Taíno population had been eliminated.


French pirates began settling in the eastern portion of Hispaniola (where modern-day Haiti is located) to steal from Spanish colonists. Eventually, Spain gave up control of that region to France, who took over and renamed the colony Saint-Domingue.


When France colonized the region in the 17th century, the indigenous population had been effectively eliminated and slaves from Africa to work the land. This proved to be a hugely successful move for France as Saint-Domingue became their most successful colony in the 18th century. At the height of prosperity, about 8,000 slaves were imported every year and they helped produce and export coffee and sugar to the rest of the world. Saint-Domingue was known as “the Pearl of the Antilles” for its status as a flourishing colony that brought France immense wealth.


Despite the riches amassed by France, the lives of African slaves were anything but pleasant. Many died as a result of the back-breaking work and poor treatment. This did not concern their colonizers much and France continued importing more slaves into the region.


Since slaves outnumbered their white population, they began to rebel for freedom in 1791. After years of fighting, Saint-Domingue declared independence in 1804 and changed its name to Haiti, a name used by the native Taíno people. The country was split into two but reunited into one country in 1818.

Exploitation by foreign powers

Independence, however, came at a huge cost. Haiti’s reputation as a new republic led by former slaves did not sit well with the world’s most powerful countries, most of whom still owned slaves. They relied on slaves to produce goods to be traded, from which their economies were able to grow. The entire European Renaissance is said to have been financed on the backs of slaves. Therefore, the prospect of a slavery rebellion was a threat for these wealthy nations, who worked to keep Haiti from thriving.


After gaining independence, France forced the nation to pay reparations in the form of 150 million francs--about $21 billion today. By agreeing to pay, Haiti would be granted diplomatic recognition (which would help it trade with other nations) and be free from future invasions by France. As a small, newly-established country who saw French warships at its port, Haiti had little choice but to agree.


Haiti had to take out loans from American, German, and French banks to pay the reparations. It was 10 times the country’s annual budget and one that even France knew was excessive. By the time the debt was fully paid in 1947, the country was left crippled. Their infrastructure and social services (particularly public education and healthcare) were deeply underfunded, contributing to a cycle of widespread poverty and corruption within the nation.


Foreign powers, such as the United States, involve themselves in Haitian affairs to protect their economic interests in the region. In 1915, the US began a nineteen-year occupation of Haiti. During those years, they gained control of Haiti’s finances, manipulated an election to bring in a pro-American president, and rewrote the country’s constitution to allow land ownership for foreigners (to the benefit of American investors). Although the US officially withdrew from Haiti, maintaining control of the region is still a priority. Reports have indicated that the American government might have tried to stop the minimum wage increase for workers in 2008-09 and to even influence the results of Haiti’s 2010-11 elections. It leaves many Haitians wondering how much of the country’s future is really in their hands.

A country marred by extreme poverty

Constant destabilization and exploitation from foreign powers led Haiti to become the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It also made it extremely difficult for its government to find solutions to help the country. As much as 80% of the population lives in poverty. Unemployment is widespread and many Haitians get by doing odd jobs for little pay. 


Because of the lack of opportunities in their country, many well-educated Haitians find themselves moving abroad for a better life. They work hard and send money back to their families in Haiti. It’s been said that foreign remittances contribute hugely to the Haitian economy--as much as 25% of their gross domestic product (GDP) or $2 billion annually. This amount can even exceed money received from foreign aid or investment. 

The 2010 earthquake especially brought more devastation to an already-damaged country, which was woefully unprepared to handle the effects of it. The 7.0 magnitude earthquake claimed 220,000 lives and left 1.5 million people homeless. Many government officials also perished in the disaster. Post-earthquake, Haiti was a country in ruins.

How poverty contributes to the Restavek system

Poverty in Haiti is especially high in rural places, where most people rely on agriculture for a living. Deforestation and soil erosion have made farming more difficult in the past decades. Families living in this circumstance find it hard to provide basic necessities for their children. Unable to rely on social services from the government, citizens are mostly left to fend for themselves. Many parents have little options but to send their children away to give them a better future. These kids usually end up with a family friend or relative in more urban areas.


In the Restavek system, the child lives with a relatively wealthier family, doing household chores in exchange for education and more opportunities. However, most Haitians still live in poverty and the host family may also struggle financially themselves. In desperation, they tend to take advantage of the situation and exploit the child for free labor. The system ends up benefiting the host family much more and puts the child in a home that harms them.


Most Restavek children are between 5 to 14 years old. They are forced to work 10-14 hours a day, doing work for little to no benefits. They perform tasks such as cooking, cleaning, fetching water, and washing clothes for their host families. They wake up earlier than other family members and go to bed later. They mostly sleep and eat on the floor, away from everyone else. Some do not go to school, despite that being part of the deal when they first came into the system. 


In addition, many Restavek children are abused physically, emotionally, and mentally. However, they have little recourse or a way out of this situation. Given the instability in Haiti and the constant intrusion from foreign countries, the Haitian government finds it hard to provide the infrastructure to help eradicate this practice. Desperate families, caught in the middle, are forced to continue making difficult choices, many of which they would not have made under a different circumstance.

What is being done about this issue?

Haiti Now is committed to changing the system, one Restavek child at a time. Our mission is to build a residential school for Restavek girls, an especially vulnerable population. The school will provide them with a place to live, study, and thrive. In this facility, they will receive the care and support they need to leave the life of domestic servitude and create a secure future for themselves. We hope that their success will eventually inspire and bring about positive change in Haitian society. Please click here to learn more about our mission.