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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.