August 23rd marks the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. We observe it on this date, because in 1791 slaves in the French colony of St-Domingue rose up and threw off the shackles of their enslavement. In 1804, they triumphed, making Haiti the first nation in the world founded on the abolishment of slavery.
Recently, many were shocked to learn as they watched ABC News Nightline’s “How to Buy a Child in Ten Hours,” that today child slavery flourishes in Haiti in the form of domestic servitude commonly known as the restavèk practice (from the French rester avec, to stay with). Just an hour and a half from Disney World, tens of thousands of children lose their labor, their childhoods, and their sense of humanity working day and night as “stay withs,” as house slaves.
Child slavery in Haiti may be the ultimate symbol of a state that has failed its most vulnerable members. It lays bare the appalling lack of access to basic goods and services. It also brings into sharp focus the reality that most parents in Haiti lack the fundamental tools to demand that local and national government ensure a level playing field so that they can build a decent future for themselves and their children.
Jocelyn McCalla and I are no strangers to the issue of child slavery in Haiti. Under Jocelyn’s leadership, the National Coalition for Haitian Rights (NCHR) launched its campaign to eliminate the restavèk system in Haiti in 1999. Events that signaled the campaign’s launch included a book tour in the New York Metropolitan area by Jean-Robert Cadet, a Haitian-American whose book Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American was published that year by Texas University Press. In rich detail, Mr. Cadet told of a childhood of wrenching abuse that left little doubt that the restavèk system was nothing but slavery imposed on the most vulnerable: defenseless and dependent children cast out, cast aside, or traded in by parents unable or unwilling to care for their young ones. Cadet now runs the Restavec Foundation in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Jocelyn was the principal author of “Restavèk No More: Ending Child Slavery in Haiti,” published in 2002 by the NCHR. The report’s recommendations formed the basis of USAID’s anti-trafficking initiative launched later that year in Haiti. Benjamin Skinner, author of “A Crime So Monstrous,” consulted with Jocelyn before he traveled to Haiti to investigate modern day slavery there.
From its inception in 2006, we collaborated with Fond des Blancs’ children’s rights committee (COSEDERF), providing guidance and support that enabled scores of Fond des Blancs volunteers to collect over 12,000 signatures on a petition calling for the elimination of the restavèk system, and demanding that the government of Haiti fulfill its obligation to provide free and universal education to their children.
As part of the campaign, I wrote a statement for the NCHR that inspired the New York Times editorial, “The Lost Children of Haiti,” published on September 5, 2006. I was also instrumental in bringing two reports exposing child slavery in Haiti to light, by providing journalists Dane Liu and Carmen Russell with background information on the restavèk system, traveling with them to Haiti, and introducing them to groups and individuals involved in efforts on the ground there. Liu’s and Russell’s multi-media report “Haiti’s Lost Children,” was the lead story on August 24, 2007 on MSNBC.com. Liu’s and Russell’s “Haiti’s Lost Generation” aired on the PBS program Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria on September 21, 2007.
Both Jocelyn and I have asserted that key to ending child slavery in Haiti is creating long-term economic options for parents and access to quality education for children. While primary education in Haiti is supposed to be free, it rarely is. The costs of tuition, food, supplies and decent clothing are simply too expensive for many families who earn less than $1 a day. Accordingly a decent education remains out of reach for the majority: Haitians’ average educational achievement does not go beyond the third grade. Nevertheless, the majority of Haitian parents place a high value on education, and most Haitian children are eager to go to school.
Free education where they live means that children can stay with their parents, go to school, and have hope for the future. To make universal education a reality in Haiti, people of good will – both in Haiti and outside of Haiti — must come together to champion the rights of children in Haiti. People of good will must mobilize to keep the needs of the people in Haiti on the hearts and minds of decision makers in Haiti, in the U.S., the UN, and the OAS and to get them to take fair and just action for the people of Haiti — so that tangible benefits such as schools, drinkable water, food, gainful employment, health care, sanitation, and electricity become plentiful.
Often when people become aware of child slavery in Haiti, they feel overwhelmed and confused about what they could do to bring about positive change. Our message is “Don’t despair. Organize!” Our experience tells us that a broad-based movement paving the way for unprecedented change and development in Haiti is within our reach.
Haitian poet Denizé Lauture dedicated his book “Running the Road to ABC”:
To all children who, smiling and laughing, laughing and singing, singing and smiling, stand tall at the golden thresholds of their lives and welcome learning and teaching, and teaching and learning, as the two most endearing experiences in life.
Let us join him and get real about making free, quality primary education a reality in Haiti. A lack of education is a curse on Haiti’s development potential and will continue to fuel child slavery/the restavek system until we put a stop to it.