strategies for a developing world…

Coming to terms with child slavery in Haiti

Best intentions are not enough…

After ABC News Nightline broadcast its recent special on child slavery in Haiti (How to Buy a Child in Ten Hours), several well-meaning colleagues admitted that they felt ill-at-ease with the claim made in the televised broadcast. One challenged the very notion that Haitian children could be bought and sold for cold cash. Another said that this was a made-for-TV –ratings setup. Yet another claimed that exposing the ease with which a child could be procured in Haiti would boost the child trafficking industry, and that potential buyers would flock to Haiti in search of children to own knowing that they could get away with it.

I disagreed with all of them. I experienced neither malaise nor offense when I watched the special report. The ABC News exposé had struck the right note, entirely in line with my understanding and knowledge of child trafficking in Haiti.

wyclef Had they complained about a UN-sponsored radio spot on the matter which features Haitian-American Hip Hop star Wyclef Jean, I would have probably joined their chorus. The spot, which can be found on the web site of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), has reportedly played on Haitian radio and reached hundreds of thousands. It is unfortunately misleading and offensive.

Here is my translation of the spot:

Yo, what’s up? Wyclef here. Got a question for you. What would have happened if Wyclef did not get the chance to go to NY, if Wyclef was homeless and then they take Wyclef, put him up in a house and then they have Wyclef work like a slave? Restavèk. This is something that I don’t support, I don’t agree with, I will never agree with. Because if you take a child, and you have that child work as a slave, how can you expect Haiti to progress? If I had not gone to NY, I could have been in a similar situation. So, I am speaking for all the street children. Please, if you are conscientious, you can’t take children [off the streets] to have them do work at your house. This restavèk thing, I don’t support it, I will never support it. We have to really, really give the children a chance. Don’t forget, Wyclef could have been a restavèk. With respect, I am with you 100%.

And here’s my overall assessment and why I find it pathetic, misleading and offensive:

  1. On the positive side, it’s a good thing that Wyclef’s celebrity status was enlisted in a restavèk awareness campaign. Perhaps other popular artists and bands rooted in Haiti can be roped in to produce a jingle or two that will further embed into Haitians’ minds that they must work to eliminate this particular form of slavery since it maintains a lock-hold on Haiti’s progress.
  2. Wyclef can rightly credit his immigration to New York City for his success. In NY, together with his siblings he got the benefit of a free and compulsory public education system. In the US schools, they were taught not only the three Rs, but they were also exposed to the arts, music, dance, etc… activities that are not part of the Haitian school curriculum, not even in the best private schools. Then Wyclef had access to church groups that had chorus and music, with the musical instruments being provided by the church.
  3. His message implies or seems to imply that if a child is treated well, he or she can get to NY too and even become a superstar. However, Wyclef’s path to success bears no relation to the paths of the thousands of children caught in the restavèk system, and the millions of children being raised in Haiti overall. If the message is treat a child well and he/she will get to NY too, the message is really pathetic and ill-advised. I find it offensive. Most Haitians will not end up abroad; salvation does not reside in emigrating from Haiti; salvation lies with reforms within Haiti designed to eliminate slavery. The key difference here is that Wyclef and his siblings got to go to NY because his parents did not abandon him, did not trade him in to relieve themselves of the burden of raising him, and did not leave him behind when they got the opportunity to immigrate to the US.
  4. Wyclef was not a success in Haiti before he immigrated to the US. Thus his fame and wealth had little to do with what Haiti offers its children.
  5. The second troublesome thing is that he is barely aware of what a restavèk is, other than understanding that this is a child tasked to do housework. According to this PSA, a restavèk is a child lifted off the streets where he/she lives, given shelter by some unidentified person who then proceeds to use the child for housework.
    • All the literature on restavèk children that I am aware of say that it’s a trade between a willing provider and a willing taker, a trade in which the child has no say in the matter, and it certainly does not emanate from the situation of a homeless child.
    • While most trades of that sort occur without money changing hands, there are nonetheless monetary benefits for the parties involved. On the supply side, there is the benefit of reduced expenses, since there are fewer mouths to feed. On the demand side, the ability to earn extra money is enhanced because free child labor is being used to shore up the beneficiary’s prospects.
    • The literature also says that most restavèk become homeless after they either run away or are thrown out by their overseers, not before.
    • While it may be the case that some children may be taken from streets and are ensnared into slavery by strangers in whom they put too much trust, this segment of the restavèk population is incidental to the overall restavèk population.

The truth is that the restavèk system is so deeply rooted in Haitian customs that most Haitians either do not or refuse to identify it for what it is: child slavery. And when they are confronted with the facts, they tend to initially deny it. Redemption begins with neither denying nor hiding the truth. As I wrote in Restavèk no More: Eliminating Child Slavery in Haiti, “[restavèk servitude] is the nexus for several other societal ills that together constitute tacit support for a wide array of human rights abuses that, nurtured during childhood, retard Haitian development and fuel its chronic socio-economic and political crises.” Failure to eliminate the restavèk system in Haiti guarantees socio-economic and political collapse: that’s all there is to it.

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2 Responses

  1. There are so many advocates for the problem, so many voices. But, are we really helping if we do not hear the voices of those who claim are enslaved. Are we really helping if we ignore those who are calling out for help out of the mire of the slave system? If we can only talk the talk and not let the former or existing slaves tell their stories, not let their own voice be heard, then we are continuing to promote slavery by using their story to promote ourselves while their voices remain shut. This is the voice of a woman raised as a slave crying for help. Here is her story at the following site:; here is her book:

    Will you listen to her cry and help free her, or will you continue using the slave story to promote your own voice while slavery continues to in Haiti for generations to come?

  2. Indeed the retavek system is deeply rooted in Haiti and for generations. Like every system it works according to the user or the abuser. When I was young my mother had children brought to our house by their parents because they wanted them to be educated and have a better life. They were wiewed as members of our family and worked but every one of us had work to do. Sometimes the restavek is a member of a poorer side of the family and the parents are looking for a better future. Many get adopted by the host family.
    The children at my home received a better than basic education. They went to night school and my mother supplemented their knowledge by her teaching. The young man went to carpentry school and through our family connections became a rich and powerful real estate man in Haiti. His children are doctors, accountants etc… The Two Girls were married at our home and their families have also done well, much better than the children born in our own family. All are now living in the USA or Canada. I never thought of those 3 as restaveks. They were extended members of my family. I know this is not the classic scenario but many decent and loving people took good care of those children who otherwise would have been Haitian homeless people and left to die in misery. There are horror stories of course but in every facet of life there are horror stories. But if the people in search of sensationalism look deep enough they will realize that there is more to the restavek tradition than abused children sold into slavery. If we look around the world the problem of children being abused by bad people is not unique to Haiti. I agree that the system of using children for work is despicable but the same thing holds true in India, China, the Middle East, many of the African countries and even in the good old U S of As. Reporting on the ills of our world is good and struggling to abolish them should be applauded but please make the reporting a balanced one. There are people jumping on the band wagon and screaming who would not give a plugged nickel to a homeless, hungry, sick Haitian child.
    Remember the children working in the fields of many European countries, children going blind from tying tiny knots in to be expensive oriental rugs… hours after hours, days after days.
    Like any bad institution the restavek system has to be fought and destroyed but we have to provide something to those children who are going to be left on the street to fend on their own.
    The best way would be to have a welcoming center where poor, homeless, neglected children could turn for help and solace, but Haiti itself needs help and solace.


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