Editor's note: To find out how you can help survivors of Tuesday's devastating earthquake in Haiti, see here.
Haiti holds a romantic and tragic place in the historical imagination -- a nation birthed by a successful slave rebellion, it was the first to abolish slavery in the Western hemisphere and briefly served as a beacon of hope for American abolitionists. However, it never realized its promise, for reasons that scholars and analysts can debate ad infinitum.
Perhaps most egregiously, its grinding poverty is so pervasive that an estimated 300,000 children have been given up by their parents to become restavèks -- a creole term for children sent to become house servants to wealthier Haitians. According to human rights workers and survivors of the child-slavery system, these children are forced to work long hours, are often kept out of school, are barely fed and clothed, and are routinely abused physically, emotionally and sexually.
Now, professional recruiters have made the situation even worse by making a business out of the longstanding informal practice. Last June, a United Nations expert on contemporary forms of slavery, Gulnara Shahinian, visited Haiti at the invitation of the government and issued a report that included the recommendations summarized below:
[S]he urges the Government to establish a national commission on children, with special attention given to vulnerable children, to monitor and ensure protection of the rights of children. The Special Rapporteur further recommends that in the area of prevention, the Government develop proactive complex prevention programmes to eliminate the practice of restavèk. She believes that the Government of Haiti should take urgent measures to bring local legislation into conformity with international legal instruments ratified by Haiti; ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families; and adopt immediate and long-term measures to address shortcomings in the administration of justice in the country.
Unfortunately, it's not a newly discovered problem. Here's a short documentary from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting on restavèk children from 2007:
In 2008, ABC News reporter Dan Harris went undercover to meet several traffickers, each of whom offered to sell him girls between the ages of 10 and 15. Not long after he lands in the capital of Port au Prince, he is negotiating a deal with a man who says he is a former member or parliament. They settle on a price of $150. A second trafficker wants $10,000 and offers fake papers so that he can take the child back to the US -- something he claims he has done before.
Last week, Berlin-based writer Rose-Ann shared a memory with readers at The WIP of encountering restavèk children when she visited Haiti as a child:
When I was about seven years old, on my first trip to Haiti, I remember seeing skinny, dark-skinned girls sweeping front paths, carrying buckets of water on their heads and hoisting heavy bins, while other children their age walked to school in crisply pressed uniforms.
I recall taking an interest in these girls because they were barely older than I was yet something in their faces disturbed me; they were young but they had weary expressions that belonged to tired old women.
As an adult, Rose-Ann gained insight into the lives of these children by reading Restavec: From Haitian Slave-Child to Middle Class American, the memoir of Jean-Robert Cadet, a former child slave who was fortunate enough to get an education when he accompanied his host family to the United States. She now runs the Jean Cadet Restavek Foundation, advocates on behalf of Haiti's child slaves and works to secure education, food, health care and other basic needs for them.
A few weeks ago, Oprah Winfrey profiled Cadet:
On Tuesday, the country was hit by a powerful earthquake that, according to the New York Times, left "huge swaths" of Port-au-Prince in ruins, and may have killed thousands of people.
On Wednesday, President Obama called the devastation "heart-wrenching" and pledged rescue and humanitarian relief to the survivors.
Since it is still struggling to recover from devastating storms in 2008 and will now be focusing effort on earthquake rescue, relief and repair, it's not likely that Haiti will have the resources to enact the reforms advocated by the UN, so private efforts such as Cadet's take on greater significance. Other high-profile philanthropic efforts include Haitian American musician Wyclef Jean's Yele Foundation. In 2008, Jean spoke to Al Jazeerah about his efforts to combat Haiti's food crisis:
Jean also sprang into action about the earthquake via Twitter, tweeting a way to contribute to the relief effort via text message.
Jean's efforts to combat poverty in Haiti are complemented by the work of other philanthropists, including former Pres. Bill Clinton, who serves as the UN special envoy to Haiti. He toured the island in March, 2009 with UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon to survey efforts by his foundation and other organizations to expand education and nutrition programs. Clinton has been upbeat about Haiti's future, saying it...
"...offers unique opportunities for public and private investment to improve health and education in ways that will be good for Haitians and all their partners in our interdependent world."
Now that the earthquake has delivered to the country what Mr. Ban has called "catastrophic" and Haitian President Rene Preval has called "unimaginable," considerably more effort will be required to ensure that those investments are made and the benefits trickle down to the poorest Haitians so that they will be able to feed and care for their own children. Ultimately, only economic development and sustained human rights activism will finally allow the island to realize the dream that its founders fought so desperately to achieve more than 200 years ago.
Related: Free the Slaves
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