More than once I have heard the restavèk system defended as a part of Haitian culture. Comments posted after ABC News Nightline aired “How to Buy a Child in Ten Hours” include: “It’s very easy to judge not being acquainted with Haitian customs … The practice of ‘lending’ a child away to go and live with well-off families for their sake is a practice very old in Haiti.” So let’s take a closer look at the way things have been done in Haiti for a very long time.
Throughout Haiti’s history power has been concentrated in the hands of a few, and exercised not at the service or benefit of the Haitian people, but at their expense. Moun andeyo, literally “people outside,” while used to describe those who live in the Haitian countryside, is an apt term to describe most people in Haiti: people on the outside of political and economic power. The exclusivity of power has always been an issue in Haiti, as well as pre-Haiti, i.e., Saint-Domingue, where the whites were the owners, the blacks the owned, and the mulattoes a combination of the two. Slave labor generated enormous wealth for France, earning the colony the distinctive title “Pearl of the Antilles.” But the name came at the expense of the slaves, many of whom were literally worked to death, provoking history’s only successful slave revolt.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, in Haiti: State Against Nation, asserts that while united in their vision that slavery as an institution was to be abolished, Haiti’s founding fathers determined that the large-scale export economy, i.e., the plantation system, with similar financial returns as those earned by the French colonists, was to be maintained. The newly freed slaves saw the plantation system as close to slavery, and they resisted it. So it was imposed on them. Thus, from the very beginning, while they were the backbone of the nation, the majority of Haitians did not have a say in the affairs that affected them, and they were excluded from political participation and economic benefit.
Struggles and disagreements ensued from the very beginning among Haiti’s first leaders over the shape and control of the economy. However, Trouillot states they did agree that “success was possible only through the economic exploitation of the black labor force” (Trouillot, Haiti State Against Nation, 49) — that the black masses were their tools for making money.
While slavery was officially abolished in Haiti in 1804, what has yet to be eradicated there, or in many other parts of the world for that matter, is the practice of treating human beings as property and forcing them to work for the economic benefit of another.
Conservative figures estimate that 27 million people are currently enslaved across the globe. This is more than at any time in human history—even more than during the transatlantic slave trade, which enslaved approximately 12 million people.
The slave trade today is a relatively low risk, high profit venture generating over $19 billion annually for those engaged in what is commonly referred to as “human trafficking.” Human trafficking can be a misleading term, as it seems to only imply the movement of people, not their enslavement. Nonetheless, it is one of the leading international crime industries, trailing close behind the drug trade.
Whether money exchanges hands or not, and whether people are forced to work in a field, quarry, sweat shop, brothel, or house, international expert on slavery, Kevin Bales, defines the core attributes of slavery:
They are the same attributes that described a slave in the past: the state of control exercised over the slave based on violence or its threat, a lack of any payment beyond subsistence, and the theft of the labor or other qualities of the slave for economic gain (Bales, Understanding Global Slavery, 9).
So let’s revisit the comment “The practice of ‘lending’ a child away to go and live with well-off families for their sake is a practice very old in Haiti.” Employing the principle of charity, I think the writer intends to say that the practice of “lending” children in Haiti is for the sake of the child. Here I want to acknowledge that there are families in Haiti that do welcome children into their homes with the primary purpose being to care for the children and promote their well-being. However, in the case of the restavèk system, the main reason the child is in the home is to work. It is not for the sake of the child; it is for the sake of the child’s masters.
In Karen Kramer’s film “Children of Shadows,” women with restavèks in their homes candidly if not proudly describe how useful the children are to them, because the children perform most if not all of the work in the house. As though they were enthusiastically promoting a household appliance like a washing machine or dishwasher, they boast about how their house slaves do everything for free.
Today in Haiti, at least one in ten children does everything for free – getting up long before dawn, going to bed (on the floor) long after dark, doing all of the work of the house in the hours in between. Perhaps because it seemed normal to her, Maude Paulin felt justified in 1999 in bringing (then) 14-year Simone Celestin from Haiti to her home in the U.S., where Simone worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week. Maude Paulin, formerly a teacher, was recently sentenced to seven years in prison in South Florida for human trafficking and forced labor. “Celestin got virtually no schooling, was frequently threatened [with deportation] and beaten and forced to sleep on the floor. Celestin testified that she thought about killing herself” (CBS4). In the end, Paulin “insisted she only wanted good things for the girl” (CBS4). Some details from Simone’s story are remarkably similar to those recounted by Jean-Robert Cadet in his book Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle Class American.
After attending a fundraiser I had organized in Brooklyn to support community efforts in Fond des Blancs to eliminate the restavèk system, a friend of mine confessed that she only truly became horrified by the restavèk practice when she imagined her own son as a restavèk, working day and night as a house slave. If you take a moment to imagine your own child or a child you care about subjected to the restavèk practice along with its accompanying physical, psychological and sexual abuse, I think it is easier to see that the restavèk practice is not just an old Haitian custom, but rather theft of a person’s labor and life; it is slavery. The restavèk practice essentially throws away the lives of children and along with them Haiti’s future.
Community members in Fond des Blancs recognize that poverty and a lack of education waste their children’s minds and lives, which is why they contacted Jocelyn McCalla and me in 2006 to help them structure and organize a campaign to eliminate the restavek system, create economic opportunities for parents, and provide a quality education for all children in Fond des Blancs.
The lessons of the Haitian Revolution are many. Among them that the desire to live in freedom, equality and dignity comes from a place deep inside of us, and it is our right, our birthright as human beings. Those who were enslaved in Saint-Domingue dared to dream and fight for their freedom. There were many who said that they couldn’t win, that the other side was too big and too strong. But they fought and won anyway. We should let their example inspire us in fighting to end the restavèk system and making freedom and universal primary education in Haiti a reality for all.