On February 4, ten members of an American Baptist group were caught crossing the Haitian border into the Dominican Republic with a busload of 33 children. There was no official documentation for the children—most Haitian babies are not registered at birth—and group members were promptly arrested and charged with kidnapping. The story, however, turned out to be short-lived: the missionaries chalked the affair up to a misunderstanding, claiming that they believed the children to be orphans, and by February 19, eight of the ten members had been safely returned to the U.S. But aside from story’s dramatic allure, what was especially notable about the incident was what the Western media failed to address: that the missionaries, however unwittingly, had touched the surface of one of the world’s most entrenched systems of child slavery. ‘Restavek’ is not a word I was familiar with before walking into today's UN panel on contemporary slavery. From the audience’s reaction when the moderator began using the word casually, I assume it’s not a term that most other people were familiar with either. A restavek (from the French reste avec, or ‘stay with’) is a child domestic servant, and in most cases, a girl who has been given away by parents unable to afford the costs of raising her. Restaveks are slaves in the most medieval sense of the word: they work 16-20 hour days, are charged with taking care of all household chores (including fetching water, cleaning, and washing clothes), and are denied access to pay, education, and even a bed. While the system is a holdover from a time when wealthy families took in other peoples’ children and provided them with a home and education, the economics have since shifted, and now even poor Haitian families have begun taking in child slaves. Before the earthquake, there were an estimated 300,000 restaveks in Haiti and 400,000 more children believed to be orphans. But at best, these figures are educated guesses. Exact numbers are difficult to come by, both because many of the children remain under the government radar, and worse still, because many Haitian parents have taken to using orphanages as depositories for unaffordable offspring, making it difficult to tell which children actually are orphans, and which have been abandoned to a corrupt and ineffective bureaucracy. The roots beneath the restavek system are familiar ones: poverty, food insecurity, lack of education—all deep, infrastructural problems that can’t be solved with foreign band-aids, as UNICEF head of Child Protection Bertrand Njanja Fassu was quick to point out. Add a profoundly corrupt government to the mix, and NGOs and international organizations working in Haiti have their hands tied. But beyond these seemingly insurmountable issues, Fassu identified an even more basic problem: that restaveks are tacitly—if not openly—accepted in Haitian society. “If you have a restavek at home,” Fassu remarked, “you do not feel guilty, and nobody accuses you of slavery.” According to Fassu, and by proxy, UNICEF, slavery is the unacknowledged heart of child servitude system—and the issue that nobody is willing to talk about. As the world’s first black republic, Haiti is particularly sensitive to accusations of slavery, and categorically unwilling to consider the idea that they participate in it. Consequently, foreign efforts to engage the government about restaveks becomes an elaborate tap-dance around the issue, a conversation about child slaves who can’t be described as such. Things are changing in the wake of the earthquake, Haitian NGO leader Guerda Constant told the audience. While there has been a surge in the number of orphaned children—and even reports of restaveks in displacement camps—the earthquake has also prompted a return to rural areas, a trend that’s been long overdue. The restavek system has survived in part because of the dismal economics of the Haitian countryside—for years, people living outside of the capital have effectively sentenced themselves to lives in poverty. Things aren’t any better now, but sadly, there’s little hope left in Port-au-Prince either. In this case, the return to the rural is a doubled-edged sword: there’s no real infrastructure for new arrivals, but at the same time, it’s easier to deal with structural problems at a community level. And this is exactly what Constant and Minel Pierre-Fils, the head of Salvation Army schools in Haiti, are doing. Constant works in three rural communities creating “social maps” of the areas that target issues like restaveks on a local level. Pierre-Fils sends social workers house to house to find children that aren’t in school, and in ideal situations, returns them to the classroom. Despite their differences, all the panelists agreed on this: restaveks must to be talked about. Unlike so many of Haiti’s problems, in this context, dialogue can have an immediate and tangible effect. If restaveks remain society’s dirty little secret, then generations of children will continue to grow up as slaves. Haiti may be the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, but this is an issue that can be dealt with. It shouldn’t take American missionaries to make the world pay attention.
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