Dr. Sanjay Gupta | BIO
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent
Last week I was in Haiti, where I spent my time walking around with an adorable young gal named Deena. She was 15 years-old, and was born and raised in Haiti.
Within minutes of meeting her, there were things that were impossible not to notice. Her clothes were ragged and clearly too small for her. She hardly ever smiled, and if she did – it was fleeting and purse-lipped. She didn’t look me in the eyes, and in fact spent most of the time staring at the ground.
Her voice was weak, and, her body was frail. When I touched her back, I could feel a hollow space. As part of her introduction, I was told Deena was a Restavek, which in Creole means to “stay with.” Our guide Jean Robert Cadet was more blunt. “Make no mistake,” he said. “She is a child slave.”
Strong words, I thought. I wanted to see for myself and that is why I found myself in a shanty town outside Port au Prince, Haiti at 5 a.m. last Sunday. It was already well over 90 degrees and there was no breeze whatsoever. We were soaking in our shirts just standing there, which makes what I began to see that much harder to imagine.
Hundreds of kids, ranging in age from 4 to teenagers, were making their way down the surrounding hills that were covered in small huts. They all carried a bucket, most of which were five gallons in size. Fill a bucket with five gallons of water, and it is around 40 pounds in weight. A lot to lift, let alone carry - for about a half a mile up stairs and ill defined rocky paths.
While the water hole was at sea level, most of these Restaveks carried the water up small mountains, more than a 1000 feet in the sky. And, Deena was right there with them, and would do this not once, not twice, but seven times a day. And that is just for starters.
She would also clean the hut, empty the chamber pots (there is no plumbing, obviously), wash all the dishes and get on her hands and knees to mop the floors. She does all this while the inhabitants of the home, who told us they are her relatives, sit back and watched.
Deena performed all of this work before 10 a.m., and then it was time to go and work at her owner’s home. We learned that she was being “lent out’ this particular morning. Mind you, Deena is not paid, and she is hardly fed – just scraps at the end of the day.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/07/13/art.haiti.street.jpg caption="A 2006 picture of poor housing conditions in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Hundreds of thousands very young children have been handed over to 'host' families to work as Restaveks."]
All of this comes with the constant threat of physical abuse, which she - at one point - received almost daily. She has been thrown into walls and whipped mercilessly, while being made to kneel on a cheese grater. As it turns out, whips are sold openly in the market, with the express purpose of child whipping. Half of the girls have been sexually abused and Deena told me no one has ever shown her one sign of true affection. It wasn’t until the age of 14 that someone gave her a hug.
That someone was Jean Robert Cadet, who himself was a Restavek 40 years ago. He cries when he tells me how little has changed since he finally escaped his awful life. He has now dedicated his life to trying to solve the condition of other Restaveks through his foundation called the Restavek Foundation.
He is slowly making progress. He focuses on trying to get kids into schools, as it seems to be their one chance. He has reunited Restavek children with their biological parents and is working on establishing funding for transitional housing for these children, with the hopes of adoption. Deena is on his list, and in the days and weeks to come may finally be freed from her owner.
As you read this, you may take issue with the term slave. Fair enough. According to Anti Slavery International, a slave is 1) forced to work, through mental or physical threat 2) owned or controlled through mental or physical abuse 3) dehumanized, treated as a commodity.
As I read this and looked at Deena, I could not see how she could be defined as anything but a slave. I finally did get a chance to confront Deena’s owner, and you can see that in our full video report.
I caught up with Jean Robert the next day and ask him – “in the end, does this all happen because of poverty?” He is adamant. “No, no, no. Poverty doesn’t explain how one human being can treat another this way,” he exclaims.
I realize he is right. While there is a capacity for cruelty that have formed some of the most abominable chapters in our human history, there is never a justification. Jean Robert calms down, wipes his eyes and says “I don’t understand how anyone could treat a child this way. I look into the eyes of children, and I see angels.”
To learn more about restavecs and the organizations like the Restavec Foundation, that are working to end this ‘modern day slavery” in Haiti, visit our Impact Your World page.
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