Working to end child slavery in Haiti.
By Kathryn Vogel
“What hurts me the most is that my mother sent me away.” These are the unforgettable heart-wrenching words I heard during a visit to the very rural Haitian island of Lagonav in January 2018.
Headlines in the US are telling terrible stories of immigration officials tearing screaming children away from crying mothers, sending both of them off to separate detention centers. I can only guess at the horrors that led these parents to flee their homes and try to enter the US, knowing there were huge risks. Unfortunately, this story is not new – just a new twist on the age-old attempts made by desperate parents to improve the lives of their children when poverty or violence force them to make very difficult decisions.
For many decades one of the decisions parents living in rural poverty in Haiti have faced is whether to send their young child to live with an unknown family in the city, in Port au Prince. The practice is known as restavek, coming from the French words rester and avec – to stay with. In its benign form the child will live with a new family to help take care of that family’s young children and perform other household chores. In return, the child will be housed and fed and get to go to school. The hope, of course, is that the child will have a better life in the city. All too often, however, these children end up being abused physically, sexually and psychologically.
One recent estimate suggested that one in four Haitian children between the ages of 5 and 17 live apart from their parents, and that roughly half of these children end up trapped in domestic servitude. We were told that about 250,000 Haitian children currently live in restavek, and ending this practice is the primary mission of Beyond Borders, the organization we were visiting. It’s a complex problem involving many aspects of Haitian life, but it is not something new – this has been going on for decades. In fact, restavek is now against the law in Haiti, but this prohibition is not enforced.
Beyond Borders is trying to help rural Haitians fight the practice of child domestic servitude by changing the situations and the community attitudes that allow and encourage it. Union Congregational Church (UCC) in Crested Butte has been supporting the work of Beyond Borders since 2012, when I went to Haiti for the first time. During this first trip, made not too long after the terrible earthquake of 2010, we stayed on the main island. The highlight was hiking up to the village of Meno, where we stayed in homes and had a chance to meet many warm and caring Haitians and their lovely children. We also discovered that the problems of Haiti were not caused by the earthquake but were certainly made more difficult by that devastating event. Only when we were back in Port au Prince did we meet restavek survivors and learn of the child protection brigades Beyond Borders was organizing to change a pervasive culture of violence against women and girls. It was painful for me to realize that something as hateful as child slavery was taking place so close to the US, and ending this practice became a cause very close to my heart.
One reason a child might be sent into restavek would be if there is no school near the village where the child lives. Perhaps someone from the city visits the village and tells the parents about a family in Port au Prince that will take in their child. Promises are made that she will get to go to school and the family in the city will pay her school fees. It sounds like a win-win situation except that too often it is not, and the exploited and miserable child has no way to go home. Probably she does not even know where her parents live and she certainly has no money for transportation and no protection for making the journey.
Escape from restavek is especially perilous for young girls. Teen-age boys can usually survive successfully on the streets of Port au Prince but young girls alone are constantly vulnerable to physical and sexual assault. One of the most significant roles of community activism in Port au Prince is identifying these children in the city – often through teachers who are worried about a student who misses school regularly or appears withdrawn and bruised. Once identified a group of neighbors, men and women, go to that house and try to convince them to send the child home. Another role is to publicize the location of safe shelters in the city – places where children can go for help when they run away.
Poverty and lack of money for food are major factors in parents’ willingness to send a child away. Beyond Borders does not give out direct monetary support, but it does partner in ways that have allowed selected rural women to get a small stipend for six months and have access to people who can help them repair their houses or develop a water source to irrigate a garden. In addition, these women are allowed to choose one asset – perhaps some goats, a pig, or merchandise to sell in their village. It is a start toward having independence and self-respect. One woman told us after she received goats, “My husband would slap and choke me. My husband was angry that I had goats. I had power.” Another woman told us that because she had some income she was able to bring her three children home from restavek, and now they are living on Lagonav. “Now that I have a house I got away from my family that didn’t want me or my children.”
One of the current major projects of Beyond Borders is called “Schools not Slavery” and its goal, in addition to getting children out of restavek, is to improve the schools that do exist. Beyond Borders does not provide new buildings or give individual children money for school fees, but rather they find ways to encourage education of teachers, modernize the curriculum and, very important, improve teaching methods. Recognition of Haitian Creole as a legitimate language for schools was a huge step. Previously all classes were taught in French – a foreign language to nearly all students and most teachers. The school we visited in Matenwa was an early model for the steps now taken more widely on Lagonav. It was known as ‘the school where they do not beat the children’. Remarkably, we were told that some parents initially resisted the idea of banning corporal punishment in school, because that was all they themselves had known. How could children learn anything if they are not beaten, they wondered?
While on Lagonav we stayed with families in Matenwa, a village near the middle of the oblong island that is about 35 miles long and 10 miles wide. From the school that seemed to define the middle of that village I looked around and could only see about ten houses. However, in the morning before school I saw at least 75 young children streaming toward the school, all wearing white shirts, boys’ hair shaved short, girls’ hair elaborately done in neat braids and barrettes. They seemed clean and healthy, laughing and playing as they walked up the road. The children lined up in the schoolyard for flag-raising and then we strangers from the USA were introduced. During the next two hours we visited many crowded classrooms. The curricula we saw in practice seemed age appropriate – the arithmetic in third grade was what our children were doing in third grade.
It was not obvious where all these kids lived but as our visit progressed we sometimes went up very faint tracks to a house – clearly there were a lot more people living on this land than was immediately visible from the rough roads we traveled. In fact, population estimates are that about 88,000 people now live on Lagonav.
In Matenwa the elementary grades filled the school in the morning (from 8-12:30) and the high school grades filled the same classrooms in the afternoon (from 1-5:30). One day we arrived back in Metanwa just as the high school was letting out. The road was filled with some 50 or more teen-age students walking home. I had not seen these young people at any other time during our visit and we didn’t see them in the evenings. Matenwa is one of the larger villages on Lagonav but there were no stores or other obvious gathering places.
In addition to seeing classrooms we also visited a large garden next to the school. There is a concerted effort being made throughout Haiti to teach children and encourage their families to grow food. We saw rows of small papaya plants in pots that would soon go home with each student. Haiti used to be food independent but no longer is. One of the reasons is the huge amount of surplus food shipped to Haiti and sold so cheaply farmers cannot make a living. A similar thing happened to the textile industry in Haiti. Once a thriving sector, streets in Port au Prince are now lined with small stands selling cheap used T-shirts and shoes that came into the country as foreign aid. Although it is surely not that simple, damage to the local economy is one undeniable side effect of the US sending aid or, in the eyes of some, dumping massive surpluses, into a small foreign market.
Beyond Borders, working with partners in the city, brought 104 restavek children back to their Lagonav families in 2016. This is a huge accomplishment! The work in Lagonav addresses additional problems related to restavek. As sponsors of the Schools not Slavery program at Joli Vege School in the village of Fonneg, UCC Crested Butte celebrated when we learned that in 2016, for the first time, all children in the villages near that school were now attending. Restavek is not the only reason some children do not go to school – there are problems getting money for school fees and uniforms, school-age youngsters are needed to help with younger children at home, parents worry (with reason) that their daughters are not safe walking alone long distance to school, or parents simply do not see any value in sending their children to school.
When children are unable to attend school, because they are restavek or for other reasons, they miss out on key aspects of education. One of the big results is that they do not learn to read. At the Joli Vege school we visited one classroom devoted specifically to teaching children who had not attended school when they were young. Here we met teenagers just learning to read and do simple arithmetic. I can only guess how difficult it must have been to be identified in the school as being in that class – but there they were. It was a small class, only six boys and girls, so each student could progress at his own rate. It would not take them six years to make up having missed six grades.
While in Fonneg we were privileged to meet with a very special group calling themselves the Restavek Survivors Network. All of these approximately 30 adults, mostly women but some men and ranging in age from perhaps 20 to 50, had been restavek children. With the help of Freda, a remarkable Haitian woman and Beyond Borders staff member, these survivors began coming together just a year ago to share stories. Now they are also community activists fighting restavek. On this sunny day they gathered in a circle under trees near the Joli Vege School to tell us their stories as another woman translated. One woman entered restavek at 10 years of age and did not leave until she was 18.
One man was restavek from age 15 to 17, and remains in broken health as a result of the punishing physical labor he was made to perform. Some spoke of the psychological violence they endured, constantly being put down in the families where they lived, given only scraps to eat, and forced to sleep on the floor. Some were made to work very hard and carry loads that were much too heavy; most were not allowed to go to school; some women were kicked out when they got pregnant after assaults by men of the household; and some were even forced to make pornographic films.
For many, these Network conversations were the first time they had ever spoken to anyone else about restavek. It was shameful to them to have been restavek, and painful to think about. But now they have comrades, they share their stories, they organize to fight violence against women and help other women get money to send their children to school locally. They identify families in the village who might be considering restavek for a child and tell them how bad it is.
When questions were invited someone asked the group to speak about how it was to return home to their mothers. It was a difficult and very personal question and only a few were willing to stand up. “It was good”, said one. “She is my mother.“ “It was not good,” said another. “She sent me away; she should not have done that. She should have faced all her problems.”
Another woman who had entered restavek at 6 years of age recounted how she was forced to work hard in a family with ten children. “They beat me. They broke bones when I tried to leave. Finally I ran away. It would have been better if my mother had kept me at home. And now I cannot read.”
She went on, saying, “I have children now, and I struggle, but I will not send them away.” Even after the trauma of separation from her family, the hard work, the loneliness and abuse, after everything that had happened, she said these heartfelt words: “What hurts me the most is that my mother sent me away.”