Looking child slavery in the face

Restavek is not a common word for most Americans. In Haitian Creole, the word is translated loosely as “to live with.” I have been to Haiti 12 times over the last 10 years and through my knowledge, contacts and involvements with various organizations working there, I know the word well.

In Haiti, child slavery has been a cultural normality for many generations. A sign of affluence, having a helper for the family or even a personal “helper” for each of a family’s child is not uncommon.

In my many trips to the North Coast of Haiti, I have never really noticed the problem, thinking that it was mostly a problem of the larger cities, where the social elite tend to live. That was until I came face to face with one little girl who I believe was truly a Restevek.

One afternoon we had just left a children’s TB clinic that we support and were walking down the back alley toward the street. A small, frail girl of maybe 7 or 8 (it is sometimes hard to tell ages in Haiti, with rampant malnourishment causing many children to have their growth stunted) was walking the opposite direction from the street with a small basket of bananas on her head. Dressed in a too-small, filthy dress the color of the dirt street, she was a stark contrast to the privileged school kids in their clean, colorful uniforms returning home from school.

As our small group approached the little girl, one of our team pulled out her camera and asked if she could take a “photo.” The response is going to be in my mind for a long time. The little girl, eyes wide, appeared to be in abject terror. Possibly she didn’t understand, possibly she was afraid that her master might find out, or that she was being delayed and would be beaten for taking too long to fulfill her task.

I asked our team member to step back and let her pass, explaining the possible consequences of a simple, seemingly friendly act. There will be no photo of this child attached to this article. With the reach of the internet, it is not inconceivable that her master could see the photo, and the consequences could be devastating.

Even though keeping a Restevek is against Haitian law and just so wrong on so many levels, the act of attempting to assist one of these children (very often this starts when they are toddlers), without a full plan to care for, educate and protect them might even mean death, or banishment to the streets. Not a good place for a young girl, even though the same dangers exist in the situation they are in as a slave.

Children are at risk all over the world. We know about the child sex slaves in Asia, the gold- and diamond-mining children in Africa and child soldiers recruited by rebel forces in many places around the globe.

In Haiti, the problem is more related to cultural norms of a severely poor country where peasant farmers find it hard to provide for their children, or the death of a mother makes unwanted orphans of her children, even though the father remarries. Often these “extra” children are sent to live with a distant family member (or acquaintance) to allow them to receive a better life, schooling, or learn a trade. Seldom does the child’s life improve, and very often the child is simply expected to arise before the family, provide whatever service they are assigned and go to sleep after everyone else in the house is cared for. They are usually required to fend for their own food, usually sleep on the floor at their master’s bed and have little chance to go to school or receive even basic education.

These slaves are often mistreated on many levels, with regular beatings and other physical, mental and sexual abuse. Most are let go at the age of 15, the point at which Haitian law kicks in to prevent service without payment. Replacement is simple enough; just go out and get another young child. Or contact a distant relative who has “extra” children with an offer to care for and educate the child while providing better living conditions than a hut in the mountains. (This is where a vast majority of the Haitian population lives.)

So what do we do to improve the lives of young children around the globe? The next time you hear that the United States should end foreign aid, remind the person that foreign aid for development (separate from military aid) makes up just a tiny fraction of the total U.S. budget. Aid for education, disease control and basic health care, as well as micro finance programs, are aimed at just the sort of problems that cause people to choose which of their children to protect from a horrendous life of slavery.

Get active. Just go online and type in Restevek for Haiti, or Child Slavery, to read of the horrors that are inflicted on very young children around the world.

For some uplifting stories of successes in Haiti, go to the Facebook page for Respire Haiti or go to www.blessedwithaburden.wordpress.com.

Larry Bailly is the Short Term Missions Coordinator for Snohomish Community Church (www.snocommchurch.org). He is also a member of the Snohomish County RESULTS group (www.RESULTS.org), which deals with the problems of poverty, education and disease prevention in the U.S. and around the world. He can be contacted at baillybusbarn@juno.com.

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