There is a system here holding 250,000 children in slavery. It happens that parents in the countryside have too many mouths to feed, so they send a child to a distant relative in the city or to a friend or an agent who promises that the children will be taken care of and sent to school. The children provide live-in labor for the families they live with, are not sent to school, are often abused, overworked and treated like animals. These children are called Restaveks.
I met an 8-year old girl recently who had been a Restavek. Her mother wanted to join the Fonkoze program that I work for and Fonkoze required that she and her husband retrieve their daughter from the city in order to join the program.
The mother died and the family is still receiving aid from Fonkoze because the program is 18-months long. This little girl technically inherited the responsibility and assets of her mother's business in the Fonkoze program because she is now the only woman in the family. I met her father recently and he said that his 8-year-old daughter is too much trouble: “she is always wandering away and I don’t know where she is…I can’t handle her.” So when the program is over in December he is sending her back to the city to work.
This is a systemic issue that is rooted in people's economic conditions. It’s really a poverty issue and it's argued that if extreme poverty is alleviated, people will be able to feed their families and stop sending their children away. After slavery ended here, there continued to be a small light-skinned elite that controlled the country's wealth and this is still the case. There is a strong class system in place with poor children very much at the bottom.
The human rights organization that Alexis works for recently moderated a panel discussion on the Restavek system. It was well-publicized, got a lot of media attention (Alexis was even on TV) and was followed on Thursday, Int'l Children Rights Day, by a solidarity march through the city that ended with protests in front of the Prime Minister's office. Haiti's history of political freedom is short and we all know that drawing attention to issues through peaceful protest can be the beginning of lasting change.
It wasn't that long ago that we used children similarly in the US. Check out these photos by Lewis Hine. It is something that can change.