I was down in Haiti a few weeks ago with some partners who are helping us in our work with the child protection police. One of the members of our team was a little overwhelmed by the issue of child slavery, or restavek, in Haiti and how much it will take to change an entire country’s cultural acceptance of the restavek system. He asked, “Do you really believe this is possible?”
Restavek Freedom’s Director of Church Mobilization, Pastor Bilda, was there, and I wish you could have heard him answer. With a passion and a fire, Pastor Bilda held up three fingers and exclaimed, “It is possible! I will give you three reasons!”
Bilda went on to fervently defend his belief that together, we can help realize a “new Haiti” where children are treated with justice, and no child lives like a slave. Though the economic contributors, the social factors, and the struggles the country has endured may seem overwhelming, Haitians like Pastor Bilda are not deterred. Here are his three reasons:
1) We are changing our mentality.
Pastor Bilda explained that the heart of the restavek issue is not poverty or abandonment, but the treatment of children. If a child must leave her family because the family is too poor, that child is not hopeless. If a family will take in a child, that family is not a human trafficker if the child is treated like a loved member of the family. Hundreds of thousands of children in Haiti are in this situation where they must leave their biological parents and are taken in others, but far too many of them are caught up in the restavek system where they are treated as slaves and valued only for their labor. This has been an accepted mentality in Haiti.
However, Bilda is pioneering Restavek Freedom’s efforts to change mentalities around justice and the protection of children. Through the Justice Curriculum, our Child Protection program, and many more efforts, we are seeing mentalities change and hearts shift. If we can change hearts and minds (and we are seeing it happen!), the restavek system can soon be a thing of the past.
2) We are approaching childbirth more wisely.
Continuing on, Bilda explained that the biggest reason children find themselves in the restavek system is because destitute, rural families simply do not believe they have the capacity to care for all their children. Many children in restavek have many siblings still living at home with their biological parents. The issue at hand is whether or not families can begin to make choices about the number of children they can realistically support. As Haitians take charge of their future, they can begin to treat childbirth with intentionality and responsibility in light of their current realities.
Though this is a thorny issue for a country as religious as Haiti, we have seen great strides already coming from churches throughout Haiti, where these issues are being discussed and resources are reaching further and further into those rural communities. Restavek Freedom’s radio drama Zoukoutap, which has 1.5 million listeners, has this as one of its core issues. One of the main storylines addresses family planning and is helping make this a normal point of discussion for Haitians across the country. We believe this is an area of growth already, as estimates show a 6% decrease in the number of children under 5 as a percentage of population from 2010 to 2015, even while the mortality rate for children under 5 has decreased in that same time period.*
3) We are improving our infrastructure, such as schools.
Pastor Bilda explained how one of the biggest contributing factors to the restavek system is the desire for children to go to school. Parents want it for their children, and children want it for themselves. Giving a child up to live with another family in a city is often characterized as blessing the child because the child may have a chance to go to school, which is often not possible for children in rural areas. Sadly, far too many of these children do not go to school, or only are allowed to go to school in the afternoon, receiving a sub-standard education.
However, Pastor Bilda knows what these “sending” families need is access to education. He has built a school himself outside of Port-au-Prince in order to provide better access to education, and pastors are beginning to build churches and schools further into the rural areas. Education continues to be a big point of discussion in Haiti, and as the infrastructures across Haiti improves, the incentives for sending a child into the restavek system will continue to decline. While families may continue to fight issues like poverty, they will have more opportunity to do so while remaining a cohesive family unit. Therein lies a huge hope for ending the restavek system.
Moving Forward with Hope
We believe it is possible to see an end to the restavek system, and if you doubt it, I challenge you to spend thirty minutes with Pastor Bilda to hear his perspective. He knows it won’t be easy, quick, or simple. But he does believe it is entirely possible, and we agree.
Would you like to be part of ending the restavek system in Haiti? We could use your help! Consider joining us today! Visit restavekfreedom.org/take-action to learn how you can be part of ending child slavery in Haiti.
*Source: http://populationpyramid.net/haiti/2015/ and http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.DYN.MORT