PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — She was a 13-year-old girl who said she was beaten daily by strangers who forced her to work unpaid in their home, and she wanted to escape.
Marilaine was one of 200,000 or more Haitian children called restaveks, typically serving as unpaid maids in strangers’ homes, working for room and board. It is a vast system of child trafficking that is often characterized as a modern form of slavery. I followed Marilaine for a week in Haiti as she tried to flee, find her parents and start life over — and this is her story.
Marilaine grew up in a remote village where no family planning or public schooling is available, one of 12 children to impoverished parents who later separated. As Marilaine tells the story, one day when she was 10 years old, she walked to her father’s house to ask him to help pay her school fees. Instead, he dispatched her here to the capital to work as a restavek, a Creole term used to describe child laborers, without even telling her mother.
“My father didn’t want to spend money on my school fees,” Marilaine explained.
As is common for restaveks, Marilaine slept on the floor and woke up at 5 each morning to clean the house, fetch water and wash dishes. She says she was beaten daily with electrical cords.
Marilaine was allowed no contact with her family. Once, she says, she tried to run away but was caught and beaten. At school, she often cried, and she had scars on her arms and legs from beatings.
Yet the restavek system isn’t always slavery. Sometimes the child gets more food and education than would have been the case in her own family (two-thirds of restaveks are girls). Marilaine says that she was fed properly and that she was also allowed to attend a free afternoon school.
Many Haitian restaveks are treated much worse. One 12-year-old restavek I interviewed said that she rises at 4 each morning to get everything ready for “the princesses,” as she calls the teenage girls in the house. Everyone in the house beats her, she says, and they refuse to let her see her mother for fear that she might run away.
An aid group called the Restavek Freedom Foundation helped Marilaine escape her home and find refuge in a safe house for restaveks. The mood was festive in the beautiful home as the dozen girls living there cheered Marilaine’s arrival and hugged her.
Marilaine picked up a book, telling me that she wasn’t allowed to touch books at her old house. She tried on new clothes. She slept in a bed.
But the family that Marilaine had been working for was furious. I visited the woman of the house, and she insisted that she had never beaten the girl and that Marilaine had in effect been kidnapped from her.
The leader of the neighborhood association, Junior Pataud, offered a conflicting defense. “In Haitian culture, it’s normal to beat a child,” he said. “But that’s not the same as mistreatment.”
The next day, the neighbors gathered angrily outside the school Marilaine had attended, blaming it for the girl’s escape and threatening to set fire to it unless Marilaine was returned. After hours of tense negotiations, the police averted a riot.
A few days later, I drove for several hours with the police and the Restavek Freedom Foundation to Marilaine’s village. When Marilaine stepped out of the car, family members and neighbors were stunned. They had assumed that she had died years ago.
Yet the reunion was a letdown. Marilaine’s mom didn’t seem at all thrilled to see her daughter again, and Marilaine quickly made it clear that she wanted to return to the safe house in the capital so that she could attend a good school. The police told Marilaine that she would have to stay in the village with her family, and she burst into tears.
The authorities will probably eventually let Marilaine return to the Restavek Freedom Foundation safe house, but the episode was a reminder that helping people is a complex, uphill task — and that the underlying problem behind human trafficking is poverty.
One way to fight such human trafficking would be to provide free and accessible birth control, so that women like Marilaine’s mother don’t end up with 12 children that they struggle to feed.
Another would be to provide free public education, so that parents don’t feel that the only way to get schooling for their children is to send them off as restaveks.
That’s why what’s at stake in fighting global poverty isn’t just poor people’s incomes. It’s also dignity and freedom — and the right of a girl to grow up in something better than quasi slavery.
My New Year’s wish: May Marilaine in 2014 finally find freedom and an education.
Contact Kristof at Face book.com/Kristof, Twitter. com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.