Child slavery not dead in Haiti

Libby Gormley

Imagine living in the year 2014 a second-class citizen in your own home.  You are a child, yet you live to serve this family with whom you were sent to live because your biological parents could not afford to support you. You prepare food which you are not allowed to eat, you help your “siblings” get ready to go to a school where you will never step inside to receive education. You are a child slave in Haiti. You are a restavek.

Vice President of Restavek Freedom Foundation Christine Buchholz imparted this to last night’s audience at Elon University in Moseley 215 during her talk, “Modern Slavery in Haiti: the Restavek Dilemma.”  The restavek system in Haiti is illegal, but culturally it is widely accepted. It is not uncommon for a rural Haitian woman to give birth to up to 10 children, but because of Haiti’s crippling poverty, rural families often can’t afford to take care of their children.  With hopes of providing them better lives, parents will send their children to another home, typically in an urban area of the country.  The connection may be distant, Buchholz explained. Often, restavek children identify their host families as their “godparents,” “aunts” or “uncles,” though the connection can be more convoluted than that.

Buchholz projected a photo of a group of young smiling Haitian girls onto the screen behind her. You wouldn’t know from their faces in the photograph that they had once been restaveks. Restavek Freedom Foundation established a transitional home for girls taken out of restavek. The home currently holds 12 girls. It is a place of refuge, as in severe restavek cases, children are abused physically or sexually.

At the home, the girls are provided food, shelter, therapy and education. They rebuild their lives in the company of others who become their friends and family. The home, currently located in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, is home for the girls until they are provided a stable situation, whether that is moving back with their biological family, a foster family, higher education, or living on their own if they are old enough.

Through the transitional home, the girls are provided schooling, then vocational training. They make their own jewelry and it is sold, often through events that Restavek Freedom Foundation attends. The girls put the money they make from the jewelry sales into their own bank accounts. Buchholz said some have as much as 1,000 U.S. dollars in their accounts, about $260 more than Haiti’s Gross National Income per capita. Buchholz expressed a hope that these girls will go on to start their own businesses or continue their education, but no matter what they end up doing, their future has already taken a turn for the better after having left their previous situations.

A few of the girls, and the transitional home’s host mother participate as voices on the radio program Zoukoutap, a drama that follows the stories of multiple characters, one of whom is in restavek. Restavek Freedom teamed up with Population Media Center and recently introduced the program in the hopes of spreading awareness about restavek. Buchholz said that although the restavek system of giving up one’s child for a better life is well-known and accepted throughout Haiti, rural families are often unaware of the degree of danger their sons or daughters may face when they enter a new home. As plotlines develop and characters grow and change, Restavek Freedom and Population Media Center want to monitor the response of the public in relation to issues such as restavek as they are addressed in the program.

Songs for Freedom, another initiative of Restavek Freedom, has gained enormous attention. The national singing competition began in December 2012. It was designed to spread awareness about restavek through the music and lyrics of young Haitians. 9,000 people attended the finale that year. This year, a contest will be held in every department of Haiti, and the grand finale will be held in Port-au-Prince in August 23rd, 2014.

The result of the competition was more than Buchholz had expected. The lyrics were intense and powerful, the performers acted out the traumatic lives of restaveks. “We tapped into an area of passion for these youths,” Buchholz said. The young people were finally given a venue to express their creativity and thoughts. Local media covered the competition; contestants spoke on the radio and television about restavek.

Restavek Freedom Foundation is working toward producing awareness about the restavek issue, both in Haiti where rural parents send their children away, unaware of what could happen, and elsewhere, Ohio, Washington D.C., Elon and beyond, with the goal of breaking down the restavek system, step by slow but hopeful step.

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