The recent earthquake in Haiti gave the rest of the world a glimpse of a form of child suffering that often goes unseen. When a group of American missionaries were accused of child trafficking, many people were confused by the story that unfolded. How could parents have been desperate enough to agree to simply give their children away to strangers? Sadly, this wasn’t just an isolated event that only happened because of the earthquake. Thousands of poor Haitian parents send their children away to live with strangers every year, desperately entrusting them to people who tell the parents they will help provide their children with a better life. But not all of these children are transferred to well-meaning caregivers who plan to give them an education or help them find adoptive families. Instead, many poor Haitian children end up trapped in child servitude.
Many Americans watching media coverage of the earthquake were moved by the poverty in Port-au-Prince, but the images from Haiti’s capital actually overlooked a devastating reality: the level of poverty in the nation’s rural areas is even worse. Almost half of Haiti’s population is under age 18, so children are hit very hard by the country’s deep poverty, and rural children and families are especially vulnerable. The American organization Beyond Borders has been working to serve the needs of the poor in Haiti for almost twenty years, and the child servitude crisis, which they call a “brutal form of modern slavery,” preys on rural families and is one of their main concerns.
As Beyond Borders explains, “Even before the quake, roughly one in ten [about 300,000] Haitian children, mostly girls, were living apart from their parents in unpaid domestic servitude—working endlessly, without the opportunity to attend school or play. Some were orphans, but many more were sent by their parents in poor rural communities to live with urban families who falsely promised to feed, clothe, and educate them. Desperate and destitute, these parents thought they were giving their children a brighter future. Instead, those boys and girls endured—and continue to endure—unimaginable humiliation and physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. Because the Haitian government has had no system in place for protecting or even registering these children who live apart from their parents, they have been absolutely defenseless.”
The name for these children in Haiti is restavèk, a Creole word that comes from the French reste avec, “stay with,” but has evolved to become a general slur meaning worthless. Some of these restavèk children may have been among the traumatized boys and girls we saw on our television screens after the earthquake—now more alone and afraid than ever. What can be done to help them? Beyond Borders is one of the organizations fighting for them on several fronts.
First, they try to stop and reverse the flow of children into servitude. One key step is conducting campaigns to educate rural parents about the real risks of sending their children away. Another is making education available for rural children. Beyond Borders notes that right now, fewer than half of Haiti’s rural children attend school, most of those who do never finish elementary school, and fewer than four in one hundred graduate from high school. But many parents wouldn’t consider sending their children away if an education were available for them at home, so Beyond Borders is working to improve the quality of rural schools and provide scholarships for rural children. They are also investing in rural development overall, providing hope for families who live in these areas.
For children who are already caught up in the child servitude system, Beyond Borders is raising awareness of children’s rights and developing a grassroots movement to demand that government, civic leaders, and citizens do more to protect children from exploitation, abuse, and neglect. They are helping train Haitian police to enforce existing laws protecting children, and training adult survivors of child servitude to become the core of a new abolitionist movement speaking out against the practice. In the wake of the earthquake, there was an outpouring of international compassion for Haiti’s children and a new urgency focused on creating a system to ensure children in need were properly documented and safely cared for until they could be reunited with family members or safe caregivers. Beyond Borders is now working with the government, UNICEF, Save the Children, and others to seize this moment of care and concern and fight for the same protections for all of the country’s vulnerable children. I am so grateful to Beyond Borders and all those like them committed to keeping children safe, ensuring each one a childhood, and making sure no child believes he or she is worthless.