U.N. officials are working with Haiti's government to prevent scores of children from falling prey to forced labor. VOA's Brian Wagner reports that chronic poverty places many children at risk of exploitation.
Many Haitians take pride that their nation was the first in the Americas to abolish slavery during a revolt in 1791. Yet even today, scores of children labor as unpaid domestic servants in homes across the impoverished Caribbean nation.
The U.N. Childrens Fund estimates that more than 170,000 children, mostly girls, do not attend school and engage in forced labor in a practice known as restavek. Many come to the capital from rural areas, where parents say they have no resources to provide food and schooling for some of their children.
These children clean, perform chores, and live in the homes of extended family members or non-family.
Sintyl Wilson runs a school in the Martissant neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, where he says he is working to keep the numbers of restavek children down. He says, if not for free meals and low tuition at his school, some of his 125 students would likely be working as domestic servants.
Wilson says the neighborhood is full of restavek children. He says the students most at risk of being pressed into work are those with siblings who already are restaveks.
U.N. estimates show about half of Haitian children attend primary school, and about 20 percent continue on to secondary school.
This school in Martissant offers afternoon classes for restavek children who must work during the day.
Now, Wilson says he is trying to draw more restavek children into the school, by offering vocational training for students to become auto mechanics, electricians or develop other trades. Wilson shows off brand-new wrenches and other hand tools he has bought for students to begin apprenticing in a nearby auto repair shop.
One of those students is 15-year-old Audrel Delil, whom Wilson found living on the streets.
Audrel says he came to the Haitian capital about a year ago from the southwestern port town of Jeremie.
He says he came to live with his aunt, but she beat him when he was disobedient and did not send him to school.
Audrel fled his aunt's house and now lives on the top floor of the cramped school, along with several other children who have no other safe place to stay.
The school's assistant director, Jean Baptiste Marie Marline, says children pressed into domestic service often face a difficult future.
Marline says children in abusive and demeaning situations often have low self-esteem and, even if they flee restavek homes they can be drawn into forced labor by others.
Haiti's government has laws on the books forbidding forced labor and child abuse. But experts say many children can fall through the cracks in a nation where scores of babies never receive a birth certificate.
Massimo Toschi, a child welfare expert with the U.N. Mission in Haiti, says a child without a birth certificate has very few legal protections. "So basically they do not exist, and it is very easy to have them forced into trafficking, exploitation, child labor, and no one would know about it," he said.
Earlier this year, the U.N. mission began targeting restavek with a media campaign featuring Haitian-born musician Wyclef Jean.
Toschi says the goal is to raise awareness about the plight of thousands of children and challenge cultural acceptance of restavek.
Also, U.N. officials from UNICEF and the U.N. mission in Haiti have been working with the government to improve its ability to monitor orphanages across the country. Experts say traffickers take advantage of the weaknesses of Haiti's birth registry system and adoption agencies to gain custody over orphans.
Toschi says the U.N. mission has seen improvements in orphanage monitoring efforts in the past year. But he says the problem of restavek goes beyond enforcing existing laws. "Children restavek exist because their families are poor, that they cannot manage to cope with feeding their children. So the real problem is the poverty," he said.
Higher food and transport costs in recent months are raising more concern about the future of the majority of Haitians, who live on less than $2 a day.