According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), an estimated 17,2 million children globally are trapped in domestic labour, with three fourths of them being girls and a majority between the ages of 5 and 14. Although there is a widespread idea that these children are safe with host families, they are often forced to work in hazardous or indecent conditions, have to be available around the clock, are not allowed or too tired to go to school, and are abused by one or more host family members. This practice has often been assimilated to contemporary forms of slavery and linked to trafficking of children.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was adopted in 1989 and ratified to date by 194 Member States, including Haiti, states that a child has the right to live with his/her family and has the right to play, among other basic human rights. However, children continue to be survivors of abuse, exploitation and major human rights violations, including in situations of child domestic labour, with multiple and long lasting consequences.
In Haiti, the practice of child domestic labor is a very complex and complicated phenomenon, which is not yet fully understood nor well defined. Children – girls for the most part – who are sent by their parents to stay with a family and offer their services in exchange of food, lodging and the opportunity to go to school, are called “restavek”, a Creole word meaning “to stay with”. However, the criteria to differentiate children performing household chores and children in domestic labour are not clear. In addition, it is difficult to know how many children are involved in domestic labour, as some reports talk about an estimated 250,000 restavek children in Haiti, and others as many as 400,000. In light of this situation, the Haitian Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, in collaboration with IBESR (Institut du Bien-Etre Social et de Recherches) and 28 other partners, including UNICEF, launched a study in May 2014 entitled “Comprendre pour Agir”. The objectives of this unique and indispensable endeavor is to better understand the issue from a qualitative and quantitative perspective, and establish a mapping of the current institutional responses in order to better address the practice in Haiti.
In the context of the annual day of debate on the rights of the child and the report of the Independent Expert on Haiti at the 28th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, as well as celebrations of the 2015 month of the Francophonie, a side event was organised by the Permanent Mission of Haiti on the topic of child domestic labor in Haiti, with the support of UNICEF, UNFPA, OHCHR, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, and in collaboration with the International Alliance of Women (IAW). The aim of the panel was to have an open discussion to better understand the practice in Haiti and to exchange ideas and articulate recommendations that the Government of Haiti could take forward in addressing the issue.
The legal framework on child domestic labour in Haiti
As early as 1960, a decree established the obligation of parents to send their children to school. This was further reaffirmed in the Haitian Constitution of 1987, which mentions the right to education for every child, as well as the Government’s responsibility to provide primary education for all. The Labour Code (1984) prohibits domestic labour for children under 12 (article 341) and defines decent working conditions for those over 12, including the number of hours of rest and attending school. Furthermore, a law was adopted in 2001 to prohibit corporal punishment on children, and in 2003 all forms of sexual abuse and violence against children. However, for the most part these laws and decrees are unknown by the general population, and the practice of having a “restavek” in the home is a wide-spread practice in Haiti, in both rural and urban settings, and across all social classes.
The Haitian Government has reaffirmed its commitment to continue to address this issue by developing a national plan of action, improving the existing legal framework, ratifying the Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), ratifying the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, as well as the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.
There is also an opportunity for Haiti to learn from and adapt best practices from the Global South in the framework of the Francophonie. In 1993, a ministerial conference was organised to discuss children’s rights and adopt a plan of action. Other initiatives include awareness-raising campaigns, mobilizing institutional networks, capacity building and training of professionals, creation of independent child protection mechanisms, and advocacy on the promotion and protection of children’s rights.
The side event, which was well attended by several Member States, NGO representatives, and members of the Haitian community in Geneva, provided an opportunity for a rich discussion on a controversial and very sensitive topic. The Government of Haiti was congratulated for its leadership in organising this event which proved to be successful.
Panel recommendations for the Government of Haiti
The following recommendations were articulated by both panelists and participants:
- Review the findings of the soon to be released study on child domestic labour in Haiti
- Increase awareness of the general population and disseminate existing laws on child domestic labour in non-technical language, in rural and urban areas
- Put in place measure to increase implementation of existing laws, as well as sanctions to prevent impunity
- Improve the legal framework
- Better understand the socio-cultural and anthropological aspects of child domestic labour in Haiti
- Adopt a human-rights based approach that does not use culture to condone child rights violations
- In the framework of a pilot project, work with families who could serve as models/champions on this issue
- Ensure reintegration of survivors of child domestic labour
By Marie-Claude Julsaint
IAW representative to the Human Rights Council in Geneva