Another Step Toward the Elimination of the Restavek System Takes Place in Haiti
The Jean-Robert Cadet Restavec Foundation organized a one-day conference on May 23, 2009 to highlight the plight of restavek children and gain greater commitment from the assembled audience to act in unison towards the elimination of the system. I participated as a panel moderator. My colleague Anna Grimaldi Colomer who has long labored to raise awareness of the issue internationally and campaigned for coordinated action of all allied organizations on this subject filed the following report which was printed last month in the Puerto Rico Daily Sun. We reprint it with her permission.
On May 23, 2009 more than 500 people gathered in Port-au-Prince, Haiti to hold a national dialog on the status of the Haitian child known as "restavek". The Jean Robert Cadet Foundation and The Maurice Sixto Foundation sponsored the conference, "Mwen Se Ayiti Tou/I Am Haiti Too". (www.restavecfreedom.org) The exceptional organization as shown in the timely flow of the conferences, panel discussions, musical presentations and speeches was the result of more than six months of meticulous research, planning, preparation, coordination, partnerships and team building. The subject was examined under four lenses: Legal and Law Enforcement, Psychological and Social Impact, the Role of the Religious Community and Current Initiatives. For those that doubted that this was possible to do in Haiti – to bring a wide variety of people together to talk on a very sensitive and taboo subject, to find common grounds and set future goals together- they can now put that concern to rest. This encounter was another building block in the foundation and network to defend children’s rights and to end exploitative and hazardous child labor. It was a critical, overdue and much needed next step to raise the national consciousness and to continue the struggle of protecting the childhood of hundreds of thousands of Haitian children.
The conference honored the pioneer work of Maurice Sixto by inviting his widow to address the participants. Recalling Maurice’s recording of "Ti Santaniz" was a painful reminder that more than 40 years have passed since these insightful narratives on the harmful cultural practice (HCP) aired on radio and records. Such harmful traditional practices (HTP) are widespread in all societies and are so tightly woven in the fabric of society that it becomes impossible to see them as anything other than part of normal life. If they are recognized at all, they are seen as unfortunate situations that are inevitable under the surrounding circumstances and environment. If they are recognized as wrong, there is a sense of hopelessness in seeking solutions—especially on the national level. This practice that was once seen as a solution to poverty is now understood to not only perpetuate it but to entrench it even more deeply.
Restavek is not a singular concept but a totality of conditions, and for this reason many continue to engage in defining and defending the practice of taking in someone else’s child "to stay with" another family. The arrangement is as diverse as the families who take in these children. Some adults and children look back on the experience as a positive one: they were able to go to school, eat daily meals and had some opportunities they would not have had otherwise. For some restaveks, the practice was a form of kinship care, foster care, in-formal or formal adoptions and provided them with some sense of family life.
The individuals and groups that are speaking out are doing so on behalf of the vast majority of children that are the kind of restaveks that Jean Robert Cadet so vividly describes in his memoirs "RESTAVEK: From Haitian Child Slave to Middle Class American". What distinguishes restavek children from foster children is their treatment: the degradation, the lack of respect for their inherent dignity, value and rights. The flagrant violations of their most basic human rights and the violence they endure sabotage early childhood development and their personhood. They are stigmatized and an outcast social class. Over the past decades there has been a shift in the profile of the families who take in these children. Most live in radical poverty themselves, have been victims of violence and depravation and are looking for survival strategies for their own families. It is the critical need for free labor that drives them to take in a child. Haiti ratified The United Nation’s Convention of the Child in 1994. (www.crin.org)
Hope was high and international and local agencies worked as a coalition to widely disseminate this new convention, to educate, advocate and defend the rights it articulated. Civil strife, political unrest, corruption, and embargos were just some of the setbacks experienced during these years. In Haiti’s report to the CRC monitoring committee the government was cited as being deficient in meeting its obligation to children as articulated and agreed upon in the Convention. The situation of the child domestic worker/servant/slave was cited multiple times. The linkage to forced labor, organized trafficking and contemporary forms of slavery were being highlighted around the world. The fact that so little has been achieved by the government, intergovernmental agencies and the major international agencies to impact the restavek system is shameful.
The "I Am Haiti Too" conference made reference to this but also highlighted the very good projects such as Foyer Maurice Sixto, Mouvman Vin Plis Moun, Limyè Lavi Foundation and The Matènwa Community Learning Center and showed what is possible. The call for change was directed to the individual. It called for all members of society to speak out and stand up for these children, to become advocates and activists in order to bring an end to the restavek system. The panelists emphasized that true change comes when values shift and behaviors change. The government needs to meet its legal obligations but its failure to do so cannot excuse one from influencing the community by changing one’s own and one’s family’s practices. As Pastor Shiba said "If you can’t be a star in the sky be a lamp in your own home". Violence has always been a part of Haitian society and to break this culture of violence will require the engagement and deep commitment of all institutions and individuals. The toll that violence takes on children and a nation is well documented. It wastes human capital and impedes progress and development on all levels.
What needs to be done now to distinguish "I Am Haiti Too" from other conferences that made no significant change? What needs to be done to make it a pivotal meeting, a catalyst for collective action, and one that will unite and serve as a tipping point in this lethargic movement? It will take leadership, authentic engagement, commitment, strategic alliances, resources, inclusive participation, shared learning and time. In order to engage others there must be a clear vision and a viable course of action for a broad coalition. Sister Martha said, "I love to live in hope!" Most people do. Real hope has action behind it. I hope that the time has finally come to seriously work on transforming the lives of the restaveks and to put this harmful cultural practice that Maurice Sixto spoke about more than 40 years ago to its final rest.
Anna Grimaldi Colomer
Teaching for Tomorrow