Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

Photojournalist Paddy Dowling travels to Haiti to document its next generation: ‘restaveks’ – children separated from their families, heartbroken and forced into a life of slavery

Seated in a darkened room at the end of a long corridor, hiding his face, he looks down. When questioned, he simply shrugs his small shoulders. One by one, tears cascade onto the table where he sits. Esperence, 10, a “restavek”, given up by his biological parents aged eight, surrenders to his emotions. He turns away, finds space and tries to wipe away the suffering with each pass of his shirt sleeve. 

A country once enslaved, Haiti revolted in 1791 to free itself from the shackles of its French masters. By 1804, Haitians – led by the heroic military strategist Toussaint L’Ouverture – had achieved the only successful slave revolt in modern history. But today, children like Esperence are given away to more affluent households and new masters. They become domestic servants – forced to work without pay, isolated from other children and often prevented from attending school. A form of slavery is thus still deeply engrained in their culture.

Haiti today seems paralysed after having endured devastating earthquakes, hurricanes, cholera epidemics, increased fuel prices and food shortages. It is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, with 6 million living below the poverty line and 2.5 million living in extreme poverty. An unstable political context, in need of radical reform, contributes to its extremely vulnerable situation. 

The Haitians expected salvation from their misery, as aid agencies and international NGOs poured in with offers of assistance. Perhaps there was too much hope, or simply big promises never delivered. The best efforts have been unable to change Haiti’s fortunes. Unintentionally, what has resulted is a mindset of subserviency, an expectation of handouts. If Haitians want change, they must liberate themselves once more. 

That change is possible with effort and resources, including the power of education and role models to demonstrate to the next generation what is possible.

Forestal, nine, is in second grade at Marescot School, Haiti. The school is funded through the partnership between non-profit buildOn Haiti, and Educate A Child (EAC), who have constructed 58 schools, as well as training 959 teachers. Forestal explains how she was given up by her father after the death of her mother. She now lives with her auntie as a ‘restavek’ (child in domestic servitude) where she performs chores around the house for at least two hours a day; including laundry, sweeping and mopping floors. She can only recall seeing her father once in her entire life. ‘It was only for one day, but it was really great, we had so much fun,’ she says. Forestal hopes that she can see him again – but he lives and works in Port Au Prince, more than three hours away by car.
Photos Paddy Dowling/EAA/EAC


Jasme, 10, is enrolled at a buildOn school in Perigny. Her two brothers and three sisters all attend the same school. Unlike the reported 300,000 restavek children that live away from their biological parents, Jasme lives with her family.
Paddy Dowling/EAA/EAC


Esperence, 10, goes to Perigny school. Seated on a bench at the end of a long dark corridor, overcome with emotion, he explains how he was given up by his biological parents at the age of eight. He now lives with his auntie and is a restavek child. The term ‘restavek’ comes from the French rester avec, ‘to stay with’. Discussing the work around the house he has to complete as part of his daily chores, he explains: ‘I can never go out and play with my friends as my house family always call me back inside to do more jobs.’
Paddy Dowling/EAA/EAC


Pierre, 13, attends the EAC buildOn school in Marescot. Her godmother asked for her service as a restavek when she was a little child and her parents have not reached out to her in over two years, despite only living an hour’s drive away. Medjine spends almost three hours a day cooking, sweeping, washing and cleaning.
Paddy Dowling/EAA/EAC


Sunrise in Port Au Prince, and the brightly painted exterior of Jalousie slums, home to more than 80,000 people. This is one of Haiti’s largest slums and hosts a community that struggles with lack of sanitation, running water and electricity.
Paddy Dowling/EAA/EAC


Rebecca, nine, was abandoned by her family at the age of six. She now lives with her aunt close to Perigny school, where she has been enrolled for two years. Today, more than 25 per cent of all Haitian children live away from their biological parents. Many move in with their extended family to become restaveks. Rebecca works for between 2-3 hours a day. She says: ‘Sometimes I feel tired working in the house, but it is my only chance of going to school and getting an education.’
Paddy Dowling/EAA/EAC


Noel Rose, 10, is enrolled at Marescot school and lives close by in her parents’ house with her auntie. Her mother suffers from a mental illness, while her father lives and works away in Saint Jean. She loves school and her favourite lesson is Creole. She says she would much rather be there than at home and explained that if she had no access to school she would feel sad about her life. Rose understands the term ‘restavek’ and what it means to be one. ‘Many of my friends are restaveks,’ she explains. She does all the household chores for her auntie but does not class herself as a child in domestic servitude.
Paddy Dowling/EAA/EAC


Desomme, seven, was sent to live with her grandmother when she was five. Her parents, who work as traders, live in Port Au Prince with her two siblings. They were forced to leave Desomme with a relative because their house was too small. She now works for her grandmother.
Paddy Dowling/EAA/EAC


Chelsea, 11, was forced to live with his auntie and grandmother following the death of both his parents. His four siblings all live in Saint Jean about an hour away. He helps raise livestock, carry water from the well and clean dishes. His chores take him around two hours to complete every day. Chelsea has dreams of becoming a carpenter and making household furniture.
Paddy Dowling/EAA/EAC


According to Restavek Freedom foundation, 300,000 of Haiti’s future dreamers, like Esperence, are still in domestic servitude in households the length and breadth of the country.
Paddy Dowling/EAA/EAC


Solvline, 11, is enrolled at Berard school. Unlike many children who are forced to live with relatives at a young age, she still lives with her parents, five minutes away from school. She enjoys all her classes and dreams of becoming a police officer, so she can help children and the elderly across the street. Solvline explains: ‘The police play an important role in fighting crime in gangs in the villages and towns in Haiti. If you want to achieve your dreams you have to learn.’
Paddy Dowling/EAA/EAC


Vista from up high, looking down at the slums of Port Au Prince at last light, with the storm clouds brewing over Jalousie slums.
Paddy Dowling/EAA/EAC


O’Ben, five, lives with his parents and six siblings across the valley from his school. His mother and father collect spices and herbs that are then exported from Haiti to be used in the perfume industry.
Paddy Dowling/EAA/EAC


Gerrard, 19, used to attend Marescot school but is unable to continue his education because there is no grade 7. He hopes to find somewhere to continue his studies, saying: ‘If I have the possibility of continuing my education then I would like to pursue a career in agriculture, and work with the peasant farmers in my country.’ Evalson lives with his brother-in-law and wakes up at 5am to perform his chores until 10am, then tends to livestock. He has been a restavek since the age of 10.
Paddy Dowling/EAA/EAC


The slums of Port Au Prince. Crime rates are very high in urban areas throughout Haiti due in part to gang activity. Theft, kidnapping for ransom, and extortion are all common. Foreigners are often specifically targeted due to their presumed wealth.
Paddy Dowling/EAA/EAC

Some 800,000 Haitians are over 60. Most of these older people live in extreme poverty. Haiti today remains paralysed having endured devastating earthquakes, hurricanes, cholera epidemics, increased fuel prices and food shortages. It is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Six million Haitians live below the poverty line and 2.5 million fall below the extreme poverty line.
Paddy Dowling/EAA/EAC


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