ASUNCION, Paraguay — Tina Alvarenga never asked her mother why, at the age of 10, she was handed over to an upper-middle-class couple here in Paraguay’s capital to begin a harsh new life of domestic work and routine humiliation.
She had seven brothers and sisters, but as her indigenous Guarani parents struggled to make ends meet in the dusty town of Puerto Casado, on the border with Brazil, she was the only one who was given away.
Of the many psychological wounds she suffered in her new home, that bewilderment still hurts the most, says Alvarenga, now a 52-year-old indigenous rights activist and consultant to UNICEF.
“The question never goes away,” she said. “I will be thinking about it for the rest of my life.”
Alvarenga’s experience remains tragically common in Paraguay, one of the last bastions in Latin America of a colonial-era system of child labor known here as “criadazgo.” The practice, in which impoverished rural families allow affluent urban households to informally adopt their children, is still found in Peru and Haiti, as well, but to a much lesser extent.
Paraguay’s most recent census, in 2011, showed 46,993 boys and girls — 2.5 percent of the country’s juvenile population — to be “criados,” some of them as young as 5. The verbal understanding between the families involved is that the children, many of whom are indigenous, will be given education, food and other basic necessities in return for domestic work. The reality, rights advocates say, is that many are routinely kept out of school to finish their chores or, worse, abused.
Few ex-criados grow up to achieve Alvarenga’s level of success, with many ending up on the streets.
“It’s easy to tell the criados,” said Marta Benítez, head of Global Infancia, a Paraguayan nonprofit group that focuses on children’s rights. “They wear hand-me-down clothes and have their hair very short. They usually eat apart from the family and go to a different school, a state school, while the biological children go to a private one.
“For those that do make it to school,” she added, “it is the only place where they can be children. But even there, they are so tired from waking early to do domestic work that they often fall behind.”
Still widely accepted in Paraguayan society, criadazgo finally became a topic of national debate in January after a 14-year-old girl, Carolina Marín, was allegedly beaten to death by the couple for whom she worked.
The scandal prompted the National Congress to issue a declaration condemning the practice. But several lawmakers insisted that the wording specify “abusive criadazgo.”
“No one justifies child abuse, but you cannot prohibit criadazgo,” said Bernardo Villalba, of the ruling Colorado Party. “This is a national custom, and it is going to take generations before we eradicate poverty. We can’t close the door on these children in the meantime, on their chance of a better life.”
Bernardo Puente, who spent 15 years advocating for children’s rights in Paraguay with the International Labor Organization, disagrees. “You need to tackle poverty and lack of opportunities where you find them, instead of removing kids from their families,” he said. “I have never heard a criado defend the practice.”
Even when there is no abuse and the informal agreement is fully honored, as in Alvarenga’s case, the impact can be devastating.
“You lose your roots, your sense of identity,” she said. “You are never part of the new family. They think you are, but they treat you differently.”
But many youngsters experience a worse fate than lack of affection. Some are turned out of their new homes in adolescence. According to Puente, 90 percent of Paraguay’s cases of teenage sexual exploitation involve former criados.
Girls suffer more than boys. The latter typically run errands and are sent to learn a manual trade, allowing them to develop a life outside the home. Girls rarely escape the confines of their new household.
A legal loophole has helped the practice survive, says Teresa Martínez, a human-trafficking prosecutor. She has to rely on general anti-slavery laws whose highly specific evidentiary requirements can be impossible to meet in criadazgo cases.
“It ties our hands,” she said. “We have to criminalize this behavior by its name, so that society understands it is unacceptable.”
Paraguay’s Ministry of Childhood and Adolescence is now doing exactly that, preparing a draft bill to outlaw criadazgo. Still, many issues remain to be resolved, including how to distinguish between abusers and families that are sincerely, if misguidedly, trying to help impoverished youngsters. A first step will be to require families who have informally adopted children to sign up in an official register.
The ministry is also evaluating how to avoid a wave of kids being dumped on the streets as a result of the new law, which will mandate jail terms of up to eight years for transgressors.
Ernesto Benítez, a government legal adviser, said he hopes the legislation will be sent to Congress early next year.
Alvarenga welcomes the measure. For eight years, she recalls, she awoke at 5 a.m. every day to make breakfast for the 50-something retired army major and his French-instructor wife who had taken her in after their own children were grown.
“I was never sexually abused, but I was always afraid,” she said.
In the evenings, she had to clean the house, prepare the supper and stand beside the table to serve the couple. She could eat oranges and bananas but was not allowed to touch anything else in the fruit bowl.
Alvarenga was also, occasionally, beaten with a belt.
The one saving grace was that the major made her use his personal library, often demanding she recount to him what she had read.
Yet nothing makes up for the cold way she was treated, says Alvarenga, remembering the reaction of the major’s wife to her request to visit her home on hearing of a sister’s passing.
“What for? She’s already dead,” Alvarenga says the woman told her.
The new law, she hopes, will not only stop obvious cases of child slavery but also save future generations from exposure to that kind of casual cruelty.
The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting funded the travel for this story.