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The Restavèk System of Child Slavery in Haiti

The restavèk system of child slavery in Haiti stands on strong pillars such as poverty, violence, and insecurity, as well as class and race disparities, coming as legacies of a tumultuous history of colonization. The practice is deeply gendered and intrinsically connected with the fact that these children live at the margins of society, in physical and conceptual borderlands. In search of the promise of a better future, children are given away by their poor families to other households, where they will serve as domestic workers in exchange for food, shelter, and education. However, the reality is far from this beautiful promise, and the restavèks often find themselves under verbal, physical, and psychological abuse. Currently, there are approximately 225,000 restavèk children in urban areas of Haiti, with two-thirds of this group comprising girls (Pierre, 2009). However, since children depend on their caretakers, be it their family, community, or state, their lives can only be seen as a reflection of the society in which they live. In the context of Haiti, patriarchal hierarchies, as well as deep poverty, insecurities, and inequalities, create and maintain systemic gender-based violence that ultimately victimizes every tier of society, including the men perceived to be responsible for it (de Hoog Cius, 2020). To address the full scope of violence that surrounds and is inflicted upon these children, the following article will try to look at the cultural, economic, and political contexts in which the restavèk children issue is taking place, as well as the connections between child slavery and gender marginalization in geographical and conceptual border spaces.

In his book "The Wretched of the Earth" (1963), Frantz Fanon argues that colonial displacement, slavery, and racist violence are at the core of "everyday invisible violence," which is felt through extreme poverty, racial discrimination, and gender inequality (de Hoog Cius, 2020). The restavèk system of child slavery is a deeply embedded practice of modern-day slavery in Haiti through which, due to extreme poverty among the poor rural families, biological parents send their child to live with another family, usually one from an urban context. In return for the child’s labor, the host family should provide them with food, shelter, and access to education (Freedom & des Avocats Internationaux, 2011). What is more, there is intense child trafficking across the border, with an estimated 3,000 restavèk children in the Dominican Republic (Borysthen-Tkacz et al., 2014). Girls comprise two-thirds of this vulnerable group and are particularly prone to sexual abuse and violence (Borysthen-Tkacz et al., 2014). This is an extremely alarming matter, as restavèk children rarely experience justice due to the lack of resources and inherent weaknesses in the regulatory and legal framework (Arbouet, 2015).

Figure 1. Amberline (second from right), 7, with her three-month-old brother, Loubes. Their mother Adeline (left), 32, cannot afford to feed her three kids and pay for Amberline's school education. Adeline states that in few months she is going to give Amberline away to another family as a restavek. (Vlad Sokhin, n.d.)

The word "restavèk" generally has a pejorative connotation for child domestic slaves (Cooper et al., 2012; Lunde et al., 2014; Pierre et al., 2009; Kolbe and Hutson, 2006; Suárez, 2005; McCalla, 2002). The term comes from the French rester avec, "to stay with", which is an extremely gentle way of describing the phenomenon, especially compared to the harsh reality of the conditions of these children, which Chin (2003) compares to "somewhere below the household servants and somewhere above stray dogs". In many cases, poor rural families who are unable to provide for their children resort to sending them away to live with richer families, in hopes that this arrangement will grant them access to food, education, and a better future. However, the reality is mostly different, as the restavèks spend their childhoods being overworked, abused, and mistreated, away from the love and safety that any child should be entitled to (Arbouet, 2015). Many people abstain from using the term "restavèk" for various reasons. Thus, the official term for child laborers in Haiti is "enfants domesticités" (domestic children). However, the conditions in which these children both work and live are so shameful and harsh that it makes it impossible for them to identify as workers rather than slaves (Suarez, 2005).

The restavèk system is not too different from modern slavery. These children serve at the will of the master, having limited access to food, clothing, and shelter (Arbouet, 2015). They are transported to urban areas, very often Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s largest city (Cooper et al., 2012). There, they are distributed to families who tend to live in poor areas of the city, usually slums that lack basic amenities such as drinking water and reliable electricity supplies. The poor living conditions require a lot of labor, which is one of the reasons why new children are needed and hired (Cooper et al., 2012). Restaveks are the ones in charge of getting water, cleaning and maintaining the house, cooking, and taking care of the host family’s biological children (Lunde et al., 2014). It is important to note that these tasks are commonly and socially perceived as "women’s work and responsibilities" in Haiti; hence, restavèk girls are generally preferred. Restavek children often suffer from physical, psychological, emotional, and sexual abuse and trauma (de Hoog Cius, 2020), so much so that sometimes the only plausible alternative for the child is to run away and live on the streets. Nevertheless, the child is usually dispossessed of their identity and is often referred to as “granmounmwen” (my grown-up), “la pou sa” (there for that), “ti moun ki rete a caille moun” (children who live in people’s houses), or “ti moun” (child)” (Arbouet, 2015).

Figure 2. A Haitian child works on 11 May, 2007, in front of her house in Cite Soleil, the biggest slum of the capital Port-au-Prince. (n.d).

Despite the enactment of laws such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UHDR), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the ILO Convention Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour, Convention 182, and the ILO Minimum Age Convention, Convention 138, the practice of restavèk persists and grows. Even after serving the family for years and enduring countless acts of exploitation and abuse, there is little compensation for the child. This is mostly because the law does not offer appropriate penalties, nor does it offer leveling compensations (Arbouet, 2015). Nevertheless, crippling corruption and underdevelopment take away the focus from restavèk children, moving it to more "urgent" matters for the Haitian government (Arbouet, 2015). Although the system of forced child labor is not new, the restavèk tradition has seen a big boost ever since the 2010 earthquake, which left thousands of children without houses, families, and records (Freedom et al., 2011). Therefore, these orphaned and undocumented children became easy prey for traffickers. As one UNICEF official explained, “Traffickers fish in pools of vulnerability, and we've rarely if ever seen one like this” (Freedom et al., 2011). The practice of restavèk is now illegal in Haiti but remains a deeply entrenched and culturally accepted practice, with an estimate of around 150,000-500,000 restavèk children (Borysthen-Tkacz et al., 2014).

Mobility, when thought of as an entanglement of movement, representation, and practice, has broadly traceable histories and geographies (Creswell, 2010). As such, the extensive nature of the restavèk practice and the violence associated with it cannot be analyzed in isolation from the global and historical environment in which it exists. Aggressive harvesting and slave exploitation, as well as crippling debt and corruption, are all results of French imperialism in Haiti, which took a huge toll on the development of the country. As the first black former slave republic, Haiti had to face adversity on an international scale. More specifically, a deeply segregated climate based on race, ethnicity, and economics was created, whose effects can be noticed today. Haiti’s tumultuous past of aggressive French colonization still haunts the country’s present, while the "otherness" narrative (Creswell, 2010), separates perceived savageness from perceived civilization and, as such, delimits patterns of movement, inclusion, and exclusion.

Figure 3. Children on the street of the Pétion-Ville refugee camp, after the 2010 earthquake (Vlad Sokhin, n.d.)

Mobility is highly political and should not be understood separately from politics and power dynamics (Creswell, 2010). In this specific case, the mobility of Haitian children depends on the socio-economic status of their parents. Unfortunately, a large number of these children are forced into involuntary servitude due to their parents’ lack of resources, thus tying their mobility to the wishes and grants of the host family. What is more, even with existing laws that address child enslavement, the practice of restavèk is “so ingrained in Haiti that too many people do not even know they are breaking the law” (Freedom, R., & des Avocats Internationaux, B. 2011). However, the collective social mentality is not the only one standing in the way of the enactment of these laws. Corruption, debt, poverty, and underdevelopment also place it as a secondary problem for national leaders, making way for a politics of mobility that is both produced and productive of social relations (Creswell, 2010). The idea that mobility is linked to power (Creswell, 2010) (who can move, where, and how) can be used to explain the rising opportunities for child enslavement in a continuously underdeveloped and insecure society such as Haiti. About 54% of the entire population lives below the poverty line, making Haiti the poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean region, as well as the most disadvantaged in the Western Hemisphere. (Faedi, 2008). What is more, poverty is being used as a pretext to justify the government’s lack of effort to abolish the restavèk system, with institutions such as the Institute of Wellbeing and Social Research (IBESR) of the Bureau of Social Affairs mostly failing in their attempts to stop the abuses (McCalla and Archer, 2002). Hence, the mobilities and immobilities embedded in the restavèk system can be attributed to structural borders and limitations, where institutionalized inequalities and societal norms deeply influence which children get to move, in what way, and where they get to go.

It has been argued that choosing to move or stay still is central to various conceptions of human rights, both within the nation-state (Blomley, 1994) and within universal regimes (Sassen, 1999). Even more so, whether we have chosen to be mobile or have been forced into it affects our experience of it (Creswell, 2010). Restavèks are first sent away to other homes to work as unpaid domestic servants. Then, as they get older, they are commonly tossed to the street, where they become victims of other types of abuse. Moreover, they can also be victims of trafficking and smuggling across the border. Thus, the mobility or immobility of restavèk children is hardly ever the children’s personal choice and is more of a result of miserable economic conditions as well as many undemocratic human rights violations.

Balibar (1998) spoke about the concept of borders being "everywhere." The term "borderscape" calls attention to the fact that borders are not just lines in the sand that separate one sovereign territory from another (Brambilla, 2014). On the contrary, borders are fluid and constantly shifting and changing, extending far beyond physical walls and instead intersecting with identity, community, and society (Brambilla, 2014). In this case, Restavèks cross geographical borders, from their birth families’ homes to those of their host families. However, with this movement also comes the crossing from freedom to slavery. More specifically, restavèks are unknowingly living in theoretical borderlands, on the edges of their communities’ social life and outside of any protection (de Hoog Cius, 2020). Once enslaved, restavèk children are a crucial part of the household and family life, yet they are excluded from it (de Hoog Cius, 2020). In this sense, the realities these children face are quite different from the ones surrounding them, and they encompass physical, social, conceptual, and psychological borders.

Figure 4. Bellefleur, 16, has lived for the last three years as a restavek doing all the work in the house of her "masters." (Vlad Sokhin, n.d.)
Gender-Based Violence

Feminist scholars have shed light on gendered aspects of mobility, as well as the relationship between subjects and space and how and why (im)mobilities take place (Blanco, 2020). In this sense, the trafficking of forced child laborers has to be looked at in connection with gender-based violence. When it comes to migration between the DR and Haiti, women have a hard time moving within spaces due to the lack of options and regulations (Wooding and Petrozziello, 2013). Thus, many Haitian women and girls have been forcibly displaced and trafficked, especially after the 2010 earthquake, cholera outbreak, and post-electoral violence (Wooding and Petrozziello, 2013). This is a prime example of how mobility and immobility occur, are influenced in the presence of state control, and are especially experienced by racialized and gendered subjects (Glick Schiller & Salazar, 2013; Papadopoulos & Tsianos, 2013; Rodrıguez, 1996).

Gendered narratives, discourses, and practices of violence that preserve the status quo are perpetuated by hidden erasures and marginalizations (Parashar, 2022). In Haiti, the household is the first place where power structures and imbalances give birth to patterns of gender-based violence. It is behind family doors that depersonalized and normalized narratives of violence based on social patriarchal hierarchies first shape the gender disparities of women. Domestic physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse against girls is generally perceived as an unfortunate event of everyday life and is rarely reported due to fear of stigmatization (Faedi, 2008). Such normalizations of slow violence (Parashar, Orjuela, 2021) are commonly seen in and against "third-world countries" and are deeply gendered and come as a result of active ignorance and forgetting, also known as "fetishization of abstraction" (Parashar, Orjuela, 2021). However, slow violence is still violence, and the selective focus on critical war studies, where certain deaths hold more political value than others, leads to obstacles in the pursuit of justice and peace (Parashar, 2022). Similarly, the discourses and attitudes towards the restavèk narrative are close to what Friedrich Engels (1845) described as "social murder" (Valmond, 2015). More specifically, the absence of basic necessities and systematic discrimination that lead to death should be considered “death by violence as that by the sword or bullet." Ignoring slow violence is a deeply gendered act, and reconceptualizing violent narratives would enable us to see the obstacles that are put in the pursuit of peace and justice by hidden erasures and marginalizations (Parashar, Orjuela, 2021). Raised in a violent environment of slavery and abuse, female restavèks are considered second-class citizens, which only hardens the inequalities directed towards them while depriving them of basic human rights (Faedi, 2008). Young girls working as restavèk are often at the mercy of their host families and account for 36.2% of all sexual violence victims in Haiti (Faedi, 2008). Haitian educator Eddy Clesca said in a 1984 colloquium on child domestics that the Haitian male “experiences a certain pleasure in abusing the domestic,” calling this “rape without the risk” (McCalla and Archer, 2002). Gendered in the representations they embody, these practices against women (and especially girl restavèks), which hold less political purchase than men do, contribute to growing the hierarchical gendered world.

Figure 5. Viviane (left), 11, helps her sister Islande, 13, clean dishes in their host family's house. (Vlad Sokhin, n.d).

Unpacking violence from a feminist perspective also entails understanding it in non-conventional ways, which includes violence against men (Parashar, 2022). In Haiti, men’s lives are not as easy as they would appear to be, and this is key to understanding gender-based violence in local terms (Clisby, 2020). Due to Haiti’s socio-economic situation as a struggling nation, the vast majority of Haitian men are unable to successfully rise to the unrealistic and violently imposed social and cultural expectations that emphasize heteronormative "masculinity," which leads to them resorting to gender-based violence as a means to regain control over their masculinity (Clisby 2020). Therefore, although we can look at Haitian men and women in terms of two clashing entities, with the latter one being the victim of oppression and violence coming from the first, it is important to also keep in mind the wider framework: a patriarchal system that victimizes all who are part of it (Clisby 2020). In this sense, both men and women should be looked at as part of the same borderland space in which poverty creates an environment of symbolic and systemic violence that makes Haiti a dangerous place for men, women, and children altogether (Clisby, 2020).

Finally, it is important to move beyond the narratives of "victims" and highlight the role of women as planners and perpetrators of violence (Parashar, 2022). The IPSOFA report mentions almost exclusively women while talking about the restavèk practice, as it highlights their role as mothers, slaveholders, and traffickers (McCalla and Archer, 2002). Both the biological mothers and the women in the urban areas who decide to take in restavèk children suffer from the "double burden of disproportionate economic and social responsibilities" (Clisby, S. 2020). The tremendous societal pressure felt by women, coupled with their lack of power due to the patriarchal nature of society, creates a structure of systemic violence felt and perpetrated by them. In this sense, Clisby argues that the same hurt and oppression felt by women as a result of gender-based violence stands at the core of the violence that they inflict upon restavèk children. Once again, gendered narratives of violence create a violent cycle of abuse that preserves the patriarchal status quo (Parashar, 2022).

Figure 6. 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. (Paddy Dowling/EAA/EAC, n.d.)

In a society where patriarchal, unrealistic gendered norms, responsibilities, and expectations meet a precarious economic situation and postcolonial history of violence, Haitian children are subjected to physical, mental, and emotional violence as they are taken out of their homes and sent to be domestic workers. Every potential migrant either hopes to be luckier or to embrace hardship (Salazar, 2011), which, in this case, the restavèk children have to do regardless of their desires. By looking at the place of these children in society as a reflection of society, we can begin to understand both the causes and the consequences of how these societies are organized, leaving children outside the borders of care. Questioning these gendered discourses in ways that do not lead to the further exploitation of children and raising the consciousness of all Haitians about cycles of violence and poverty are part of the answer (McCalla and Archer, 2002). If there is any hope of protecting children from the restavèk practice and its violent toll on their well-being, it is rooted in deconstructing these gendered borders, which in turn will allow children to occupy a more central, rather than peripheral, place in the Haitian social sphere (de Hoog Cius, 2020).

Bibliographic References

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Chin, E. (2003). Children out of bounds in globalizing times. Postcolonial Studies, 6(3), 309-325.

Clisby, S. (Ed.). (2020). Gender, sexuality, and identities of the borderlands: Queering the margins. Routledge.

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de Hoog Cius, F. (2020). Living on the borders: Women, Haiti, and the restavèk system of child slavery. In S. Clisby (Ed.), Gender, sexuality and identities of the borderlands (pp. 139-154). Routledge.

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Salazar, N. B. (2011). The power of imagination in transnational mobilities. Identities, 18(6), 576-598.

Sassen, S. (1999). Guests and aliens (p. 136). New York: New Press.

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Wooding, B., & Petrozziello, A. J. (2013). New challenges for the realization of migrants' rights following the Haiti 2010 earthquake: Haitian women on the borderlands. Bulletin of Latin American Research, 32(4), 407-420.

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