Solidarity or Slavery? Finding Solutions for Restaveks (Denise Green)
We should be discussing the Restavek situation in Haiti. It is neither new or a simple issue. A restavek (comes from the phrase 'to stay with') is a child who is sent from one family to live with another family. Considering Haiti's history as the only people to lead a successful slave rebellion for independence, discussing restaveks can be a sensitive issue. However, I believe that we must.
The flow of children is almost always rural-urban or urban-urban, as the family is told that the child will receive education and support in exchange for their work. Though this arrangement is sometimes honored, it often is not. Further, restaveks are most frequently girls, and are vulnerable to gender based violence. Having growing up in Haiti, I ‘ve always realized that it was unfair for a child to have an adult job. For some, having a “restavek” at home is convenient because of the limitations of Haitian infrastructure - lack of direct source of water, washing machine, electric stove or other modern technologies.
We should note that, almost always, the restavek comes from a large family. Perhaps one of the most effective ways to counter the restavek phenomena is to ensure that families have the information and family planning commodities they need to have only as many children as they want. In a mostly rural country with an economy still based on agriculture, it is a challenge - but it has been done elsewhere and can be done in Haiti as well.
Sometimes the family concerned takes the initiative to help a child. This particular child often does not have any relationship with the family in the city. In this case, this child is considered as adopted or fostered. The family will help with the basic needs and also with schooling. In return, the child will help in the household chores such as cleaning the dishes, cleaning up the house, going to the grocery. The same family can have one or many servants in addition to the fostered child.
Other familise are in a financial struggle and may only wish to have a child to help them at home. In this situation, the child may be treated just like an adult or worse with some abusive conditions: lack of food or clothes, in some situations there is sexual and physical abuse, which reflect a disregard for human rights, which should apply to all regardless of gender, class, and social status.
Perhaps the process can be brought of the shadows by legalizing and regulating the process. First we need to ask who is the intermediary between the child ‘s parents and the “fostering “ family? It is usually another family member or friend, living in the city who thinks that they can improve the child ‘s condition by convincing his/her parents to let him/her go to the city. Is there anyone else involved in the recruitment? The family in the city who would like to find someone who will work for free in exchange for foods and home pays some recruiters.
So what can be done, short and long term?
1) Long Term: The obvious first step is the improve Haiti's economy, particularly in the rural areas. This means re-energizing the agricultural sector. Children are less likely to have to leave their families if the family can meet its own basic needs.
2) Long - Term: The second step concerns education, which improves the relationship of the individual to society. Education rarely does, but should, include training on human rights - what they are, why they are important, and how they relate to the individual, the community, and the world as a whole.
3) Medium Term: The government should create a supervised foster agency to monitor, regulate and respond to any abuses. Children under a certain age (16y for example) should not be allowed to perform adults’ works. Children should know they have legal rights and someone to go to in the event of any type of abuse. This sort of abuse is a blemish on Haiti's proud history - the government can show it is serious about addressing it by creating this agency, which could be included within the umbrella of another Ministry but will need a champion at high levels to succeed.
4) Short Term: Legal adoption remains an option. Government or private agencies should investigate the families before having a child adopted. Living conditions should be taken into account.
5) Short Term: The name “restavek” should be changed. In Kreyol, “ restavek” doesn’t give any sense of responsibility. Otherwise, the name itself is abusive. A tentative replacement should be “ protégé” or "adopté", which better acknowledges the inherent rights of the individual.
6) Short Term: I would encourage everyone to join National Coalition for Haitian Rights, which advocates for change against abusive labor practices. If we can build a constituency with an active voice, we can elevate the issue with Haitian policy makers.