One of the many effects of poverty in Haiti is that desperate parents regularly give away their children in the hope that the new family will feed and educate the children better than they themselves can. Instead, the children usually end up as child slaves, or restavèk. In a country which overthrew slavery in 1804, today anywhere from 225,000 to 300,000 children live in forced servitude. They work from before sunup to after sundown; are often sexually and physically abused; and usually go underfed and uneducated. (For more information, see "Slavery in Haiti, Again.")
The numbers are soon likely to explode due to the hundreds of thousands of children left orphaned or abandoned by the earthquake. Guerda Constant with Fondasyon Limyè Lavi, the Light of Life Foundation, an organization dedicated to ending the child bondage system, said, "I can't figure out what kind of future this country will have with so many kids in the street right now, without parents."
Guerda's organization is among a small but growing network which is committed to abolishing slavery and to ensuring that all Haitian children receive love, care, and education. Many strategies are at work towards these ends.
The first is to get the government to pass a law prohibiting child slavery and prosecuting those who keep slaves. Haitian law outlaws forced labor, but restavèk labor is, in practice, condoned. It is not investigated, prosecuted, or punished. A June, 2009 UN press release concerning restavèk noted the "absence of comprehensive legislation protecting the rights of the child" and "the weakness of the judicial system in ensuring prosecution, fair trail and adequate punishment of perpetrators."
A bill which would outlaw trafficking of adults and children, both across the border and within the country, has been in the hands of the Parliament for some time. The International Organization for Migration and other organizations worked with the government to ensure that the language of the bill met international norms. But the bill has not yet been voted on, and the Parliament has been inactive since it turned power over to an international commission in mid-April.
Guerda said, "It's important that the government make a political decision on this situation. We need a law and a national plan [of implementation]. Then many NGOs who want to work on child protection in Haiti could know what to do and how to do it."
And Malya Villard, co-coordinator of the Commission of Women Victim to Victim (KOFAVIV), a children and women's rights organization, said, "Everyone who does violence against a girl or a child should be judged and condemned. We have to have a state that has justice so it can put an end to this. If the state doesn't take responsibility, nothing will change."
A second strategy includes educating parents about exactly what may happen to the children they give away. Helia Lajeunesse, a rights advocate with KOFAVIV, says, "We encourage parents in the countryside who think they're doing their child a favor to do everything within their means not to give their child into servitude."
A third strategy is to change national awareness about the rights of children, which are not universally recognized in Haiti. Malya said, "Children are an object, garbage, for many people."
Today in Port-au-Prince, a few billboards sponsored by national and international organizations show cartoons of a sad little girl scrubbing a floor; a thought bubble above her head shows her merrily headed to school. Last May, the Restavèk Freedom Foundation hosted a national "I am Haiti Too" conference, which brought together more than 500 people, the largest such meeting to date.
One level at which the awareness campaign operates is with the families who have restavèk in their homes. The Restavèk Freedom Foundation, for example, hosts meetings to dialogue with families who keep restavèk about their treatment of the children, challenging the assumptions that many of them grew up with.
Another level of awareness-raising is happening within communities, encouraging members to involve themselves in the children's well-being. Helia explained KOFAVIV's work in this regard. "We're getting neighbors to know they have a responsibility. We say, if you hear someone beating a child in their home, go tell them to stop. Tell them, ‘This is a human being and you need to treat them well.' When we can't confront the person directly because we're worried about what will happen to the child as a result, we put a tape recorder outside the violator's window to record them beating the child, then we take that tape to the radio station. The family hears it on the radio and hopefully gets ashamed and gets a different level of understanding about its treatment of the child.
"We're seeing people change the way they're treating restavèk children," she said.
A fourth strategy is to work for improvement of the economy, especially in the rural areas which are home to unmitigated poverty, to undermine the incentive behind giving children away. On this issue, anti-restavèk activists are joined by peasant farmer and allied movements who are working to prioritize rural agriculture so that small farmers can have an adequate livelihood. The movements are also calling for the decentralization of services and budgetary expenditures, in part to create good schooling for children. Although primary school is supposed to be free and compulsory, even before the earthquake 55% of school-aged children were not going to school. And what schooling does exist in rural areas offers notoriously poor education.
A fifth strategy involves direct intervention to nurture restavèk children. This not only restores wounded and neglected young victims, but also helps break the stranglehold of the system. The Restavèk Freedom Foundation, for example, employs nine child advocates who partner and meet regularly with children, encourages the restavèk families to allow these children to go to school, and finances school fees and uniforms.
Changing the national system is a painfully slow process. "We now have more people who consider child servitude a crime." said Guerda, "But at the same time it's like there are so many children and there are so many things we [advocates] have to do, sometimes you don't feel like anything happens in a kid's life."
Yet change is occurring, thanks to the small but dedicated organizations. Those groups are increasingly organized and united. The Down with the Restavèk System (ASR by its Creole acronym) network, born out of a 2000 conference sponsored by the Fondasyon Limyè Lavi and the U.S.-based Beyond Borders, is one network connecting the relevant groups.
Helia said, "It's an enormous struggle, but just like I've learned and am speaking out, everyone will become aware this system has to end."
For more information and to become involved in creating a slavery-free Haiti, check out the following (partial) list of groups.
Beyond Borders (U.S.) and Limyè Lavi Foundation (Haiti) work in partnership for a national child rights movement to demand the Haitian government take a stand against the exploitation of children. They also educate parents about the dangers of the restavèk system, mobilize and connect grassroots groups working on the issue, and address the root causes: the poverty and lack of quality education in rural areas which prompt parents to send their children away. Together the groups have also hosted conferences, marches and, in 2008 and 2009, a National Day against Child Servitude. They also coordinate the Down with Child Servitude Network, or ASR.
The Commission of Women Victim to Victim (KOFAVIV) is an organization of former restavèk and rape survivors who have banded together to ensure that no child or woman ever again experience these horrors. KOFAVIV engages in advocacy; provides support to children at risk; and publicizes the brutality of the system through community meetings, trainings, public marches, and media campaigns. KOFAVIV has no website, but many articles about their work can be found in this column series, at www.otherworldsarepossible.org/alternatives/another-haiti-possible.
The Restavèk Freedom Foundation, formerly the Jean Robert Cadet Restavèk Foundation, focuses on working with the families who keep restavèk to change the way they treat children and to encourage them to send the children to school. The foundation pays for the children's education and otherwise watching over their needs, and builds awareness of the problem within Haiti and globally.