Restavek - "One who stays with" is the word for a child slave in Haiti.
Commentary by Black Kos Editor Denise Oliver-Velez
Ignoring Haiti and its problems is par for the course in the United States, even when the U.S. has played a role in creating them. There was a flurry of concern around the time of the January 2010 earthquake, with monies raised by a variety of charities...some legit and some suspect, but Haiti news fell out of the headlines, and for the most part is ignored. Before the earthquake there were a host of problems and some have worsened since then. Such is the case of the "restaveks," nearly 300,000 children who work in a state of indentured servitude which has been deemed modern day slavery by international rights organizations.
Restavek is a form of modern-day slavery that persists in Haiti, affecting one in every 15 children. Typically born into poor rural families, restavek children are often given to relatives or strangers. In their new homes, they become domestic slaves, performing menial tasks for no pay.As more and more human rights organizations world wide, investigate and try to stop slavery and human trafficking, more attention is being paid to the practice of child slavery in Haiti.
In the Creole language, "restavek" means "to stay with." Yet for the children who are called restavek, that definition is incomplete. For them, it means:
To stay with... humiliation and abuse.
To stay with... alone, in a family that offers no love.
To stay with... an incessant and knawing hunger.
To stay with... the feeling that no matter what, their voices, their lives, will never count.
The reasons that the restavek practice persists in Haiti are complex - ranging from harsh economic conditions to the cultural attitudes toward children. But every morning another child wakes up to begin his or her life of hardship, it becomes all the more urgent that this practice be stopped.
Ask the children what they need, and many of them will offer a simple reply:
"All I want," they say, "is to be human."
On the Global Slavery Index, Haiti is currently ranked Number 3.
Jean-Robert Cadet, is a former Restavek and author of the book "Restavec: From Haitian Slave to Middle Class American."
When Cadet was 15 his owners immigrated to the United States and he joined them, again as their domestic servant. He was turned out of the house when his owners realized that domestic servitude was stigmatized in American society and that he would be required to attend school alongside their own children.
Despite this abuse within his own culture and the racism he faced from American society, Cadet went on to finish high school, join the United States army, finish university, get married and start a family and earn a master’s degree in French literature.
Published in English in 1998, Cadet's memoir, Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle Class American, contributed significantly to the slim body of literature written by survivors of contemporary slavery. Especially striking is Cadet’s bravery in so frankly describing his experience since, “In Haitian society, [being a restavek is] the lowest possible status. It’s like being a dog. And no one wants to reveal that he was once a dog.”
The book depicts the lasting psychological and social damage inflicted on those held in slavery and the suffering that persists from constant physical and emotional abuse. Cadet's overwhelming sense of not belonging—in society, in family, in relationships—is the most acutely painful reminder that he, in his own words, “never had a childhood.”
Organizations like Restavek Freedom are working to address the situation of Haiti's children.
These children wrote a letter to current President Martelli 2 years ago.
Appeals to the Martelli regime, and organized grassroots pressure, finally began to have an effect last August with a new law:
”After about a decade of effort, we finally have an anti-trafficking law in Haiti,” says FTS Haiti Coordinator Smith Maxime. “It is an important milestone,” he adds, “but we have a long road ahead to get this law implemented. A national committee against human trafficking has to be formed. Law enforcement officers have to be trained and the public has to be informed about the new infraction.”There are efforts in Haiti to organize and educate rural families about the practice, and to supply agronomists to help with increasing food production, which will alleviate pressure on rural parents who think sending some of their children to the city will reduce the number of mouths to feed.
How does this law confront restavek slavery?
By defining the existence of “trafficking in persons” for minors as exploitation of any variety against those who are under 18 years of age, the law recognizes a person’s inherent vulnerability because of their minor status without the burden of proof on the use of force, fraud or coercion. This confronts restavek slavery in that minors are shown as naturally vulnerable, unable to give their voluntary consent to labor and easily put into a position of exploitation. For those who have reached the age of 18 within restavek slavery, this law also add protections through the definition of “servitude” as the submission status or a condition of dependency of a person unlawfully forced or coerced by a person providing a service to an individual or others, and who has no other alternative than to provide such service, with the law directly including domestic services
Are there still gaps in Haitian law that need to be addressed to end restavek child domestic slavery?
While the new Haitian law sets out a clear understanding of the crime of trafficking in persons and the potential punishments for perpetrators of this crime, it is still unclear how the National Committee will implement prevention and awareness campaigns, as well as how victim services will be executed. It is also, unclear on how to deal with children who are currently in servitude.
Comprehensive victim services require a strong infrastructure to ensure the physical safety of victims through law enforcement, the psychological safety and recovery of victims through health services, and employable skills, education and basic housing and needs of victims through social services. If a victim is not properly reintegrated into society then there is the possibility that the individual will be placed in a situation of exploitation and trafficking in persons again due to their continued situation of vulnerability.
The Model Communities program has prompted parents to retrieve their children from restavek slavery, and it has prevented other children from becoming restaveks. This video features deeply moving interviews with families who are taking a stand against child slavery.Other problems entwined with the restavek situation are deforestation, and erosion, the undermining of the Haitian rice economy...and one of the greatest social problems is violence against women.
Please do not forget Haiti. Lend a hand by sharing this information.
"Men anpil, chay pa lou."
Many hands [make] the load lighter.