A delegation from Howard University traveled to Haiti for Spring Break on a mission of service. Kerry-Ann Hamilton, media relations manager, is chronicling their travels. Here is her second post.
Every day in Haiti is revealing, from the island’s beauty to earthquake’s devastation to the grinding poverty to the resilience and determination of its people. But on Tuesday, our group had a rare and humbling conversation with two women. As we listened, some of us were stunned into silence. Many of us wept at the horror of their tales.
Their story is one of rape and horrific sexual abuse -- for them and their children -- of abandonment, loss, child slavery and degradation.
They are Alina, 59, and Helia, 50, who both survived to become child rights advocates at KOFAVIV, an organization that helps rape survivors from the poorest areas of Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital.
They began their early lives as restavecs, children who work in the homes of extended family members and sometimes strangers in near-slave-like conditions. Sometimes they become restavecs when a mother dies or if a parent does not have money to take care of the child. Today, there are an estimated 300,000 restavecs in Haiti. Advocates say that child servitude is a significant problem.
Their realities were already difficult, but in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, women and children, especially girls, have become particularly vulnerable and have been subject to rape, assault and other abuse.
Alina told her story first. She sat with her hands clasped, her eyes mostly closed against the tears.
“I am Alina, but I like to be called Ti Bebe [Creole for the little baby]” she said. “It was my slave [restavec] name. I lived with a person when I was little. They forced me to work. To this day, I don’t eat meat, because when I was a girl they did not give me meat. They would give me fish to eat before the rest of the family. They would wait to see if I got copper poisoning before they ate the fish.
“I never slept in the house. I slept on cardboard. There was a dog in the house and he was my friend. I ran away to find my mother. I was living on the street. When I got off the streets, it was clear to everyone I had been raped.”
In fact, she had been raped repeatedly. Today, the pain continues, she said.
“There was a day recently that I thought about committing suicide. It was after I was beaten while protecting my daughter. So, my daughter and I were together and a group of men grabbed her arm and tried to take her away. I was fighting with guys. So that day, they got away my daughter and raped her.”
Then it was Helia’s turn. Some students held hands, some embraced. Others curled up in their chairs. Many cried profusely.
“As a 5-year-old, I went to bed the latest and woke up the earliest,” Helia began.
“At four in the morning, I had to light the fire and fetch the water. The water was far from the house. Coming back down the mountain with the water on my head that was hard…
“The woman I lived with had two older children. I had to take them to school and carry their backpacks. I never had a chance to go to school except once.”
Once, an instructor invited her to school, but the woman she lived with allowed it only for one day.
“She asked me, ‘What good would someone of your blood contribute to this society?’ At 9 years old, I ran away and joined a merchant woman. I used to wash the pots and pans from her restaurant.
“At 12, I left the restavec to work…I went to work with people picking coffee beans, I worked for a cup of coffee beans. After that, I fell in love, and I had five children. In 2004, my husband was killed after the departure of Aristide.” (Many supporters of former Haitian President Bertrand Aristide were killed in political violence after he was forced to leave the country.)
“On Jan. 12 during earthquake, my almost 21-year-old-son died. I have another child who is the child of my daughter who is a child of rape.” She was raped at 17.
After the quake, her 5-year-old granddaughter was also raped.
The spotlight has been shone by the news media following the earthquake on the sexual abuse of women and children, though one could argue not enough.
These were certainly eye-opening conversations for us, including a Haitian born member of our delegation.
“I never knew of this,” she said. “Today I felt like I was a stranger in my own country.”
Follow College Inc. on Twitter