World SPECIAL REPORT

A CHILDHOOD LOST TO TOIL

N.M. April 1 1996
World SPECIAL REPORT

A CHILDHOOD LOST TO TOIL

N.M. April 1 1996

A CHILDHOOD LOST TO TOIL

Widline Filidor is seven but looks about four. Like many Haitian children, she suffers from stunted growth. Mammy Georges found Widline hauling a water bucket on her head through the streets of Carrefour, barefoot and clutching one gourde (about a dime) in her little hand to buy a piece of bread to eat. Mammy Georges runs a drop-in centre where 173 child laborers like Widline gather to learn the alphabet and sing songs for a couple of hours a day in their teeming Port-au-Prince suburb. Monitoring groups put the number of child laborers in Haiti as high as 300,000, many of them restaveks, or live-in household helpers (from the French rester avec, to stay with). For poor country peasants, leaving a child with a family in the city—often just slightly better off—may be the only alternative to an orphanage or outright abandonment. “They get a roof over their head, meals and maybe a job when they’re older,’’ says one middle-class Haitian who remembers growing up with restaveks in the house. But there are also horror stories. Marie Ange Muscadin, 14, the oldest of six children, was brought to Carrefour at age 10 by an aunt concerned that the girl’s stepmother was maltreating her. As a restavek in the capital, Marie Ange worked from five in the morning to six in the evening doing laundry, carrying water and grinding corn. She slept on the floor in the living room and was beaten daily—“if I broke something, or if I took too long getting the water,” she explains. Now, she lives with Mammy Georges, who allows herself to take in the few who “suffer too much,” until a new home can be A found. On Friday evenings,

F' the child workers gather for a community meal. There is also a workshop where they learn basket weaving and other skills. It will never give them back their childhoods. But it may eventually mean a chance to survive on their own.

N.M.