I sat amazed in a human trafficking lecture at Rutgers University; although I frequently find myself moved by the plight of marginalized people, I could not fathom what I would learn about a region so very close to my heart, a country in the Caribbean, where my home is. As the scenes played on the whiteboard, I experienced an awakening. Sobbing uncontrollably, I knew that this moment would alter the course of my life. I questioned for a minute why the lecturer was talking about modern slavery and using places like Haiti as a reference. Then I saw an interview about the Restavek culture in Haiti with CNN’s Sanjay Gupta. I saw children used as modern-day slaves, denied opportunities for their own advancement through education, facing physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in homes that were supposed to be safe havens, the homes of elite city-dwelling Haitians, where the very vulnerable send their children for better opportunities. Perhaps the people conducting the assessment of the Restavek got it wrong. Perhaps they were confusing the poverty that many face with something else. I wanted not to believe that this could happen in the Caribbean. I had to do my own research to convince myself that slavery existed in Haiti. Then I sought to learn how much of a role culture played in this phenomenon.
Through my research, I uncovered truths that would remove the innocent shroud that had covered my eyes and my own reasoning. What would drive individuals to violate young children, especially girls, in such atrocious ways? I realized that I needed to dig through the many layers of the problems the country faced. “Ayiti,” the creole name for Haiti, possesses a rich culture but has been plagued with political and economic instability and natural disasters like hurricanes and the recent earthquake of 2010. According to the online blog Sion Funds for Haiti, “Haiti is ranked 145 of 182 countries in the 2010 United Nations Human Development Index, with 57.3% of the population being deprived in at least three of the HDI’s poverty measures.” Furthermore, most Haitians live on $2 or less per day. These economic challenges impact to a large extent families in the rural parts of Haiti, where the poverty levels are even greater. “Due to the crushing poverty rate, many poor parents believe the city offers great opportunity and better educational programs for their children. However, that is usually never the case. The young children are offered as servants to families, distant relatives, friends or total strangers. Often, an education or trade is promised for the child. This promise is false. The average child works from daybreak to sundown on household chores” (Restavak Freedom Alliances). What’s even more shocking is that 300,000 children, mainly girls, are victims of this practice, which amounts to modern-day slavery and human trafficking. “The Haitian government has acknowledged that the Restavek system is a form of modern child slavery, and has made the ownership of Restavek illegal, even though it has taken no actions to stop the practice of it, and has even remarked that it is part of the Haitian culture” (Restavak Freedom Alliances). Linking this practice to culture prevents people from seeing the situation as it truly is.
How can one convince rural families that a practice that has been engrained in their society for so long and clearly one where they have the perception that it aids their family is wrong? How can one even approach these families with terms such as “human trafficking” and “modern-day slavery” to describe handing their children to families of higher economic class so that their children have greater opportunity for success in life? How could this be modern-day slavery or human trafficking when no force or fraud occurs to induce them to hand over their children? A practice that has existed for hundreds of years in Haiti is suddenly seen as something else, especially by foreigners. Poor Haitian people will see this description as too judgmental. How then can one tackle this situation in the absence of judgment to stop the practice of slavery in Haiti?
It starts with changing the ideas that the average person holds about slavery. Slavery is not something of the past. Hearing “slavery,” people think of when slaves were brought from Africa to the Americas. They believe there must be some white colonial masters on a plantation waiting to work these slaves. Although this dark and ugly side of history is as real as the oxygen we breathe, modern-day slavery exists in Haiti in the absence of colonial masters. Their own fellow citizens are taking advantage of vulnerable children. To make the locals understand this complex phenomenon, they must be fully educated about what first constitutes slavery. According to the Restavek Project’s definition of slavery, slaves are people who are forced to work without pay (or who receive only enough to survive), for someone else’s profit, and are completely controlled by violence or the threat of violence. Slavery takes many forms, including child labor and the Restavek system. It takes a group of focused individuals who understand the Haitian culture to begin the process of educating the masses about this gross violation of children’s rights and to acknowledge that although handing children to more affluent families to care for is a part of their culture, the extortions and abuse of these children is inexcusable and must be denounced.
With the great level of poverty that we see in Haiti, especially in the rural areas, concerned nationals and organizations that are equipped to stop the modern-day enslavement of Haitian children must also tackle the economic disparities that exist in the country. Rural families must be given economic opportunities to be able to provide for their families. Social infrastructure like schools must be built and accessible to all children, especially disadvantaged children susceptible to becoming slaves in private dwellings. Those who are rescued must have the opportunity to realize their full potential. This starts with allowing them access to education and social services to help them deal with the mental and emotional effects of slavery.
Slavery anywhere is detrimental to any society and will affect every member of that society. Modern-day slavery and other atrocities are usually intertwined with culture, which is also very important to any society. This coincidence creates complexities, often hidden under veils. Every effort must be made, however, to ensure that the veils do not hide gross violations of human rights that exist where slavery is concerned. As a Caribbean national and one fully moved by the plight of marginalized people, as a Christian who believes that we are in fact our brother’s keeper, as a mother who knows that every child deserves a fair opportunity to thrive, and as a woman who experienced childhood pain that could have calcified her own heart if someone had not come to her rescue, I pen this letter to all asking that you learn more about the Restavek in Haiti and that you play your own part as children of God to ensure that we create a better world for children everywhere.