Education and slavery are interconnected. There are 57 million children worldwide who should be in school, but aren’t. About 5.5 million of them are slaves.
This is why Free the Slaves has been asked to join a global partnership of leading organizations that is championing A World at School, a 500-day campaign to accelerate progress towards making schooling universally accessible.
The initiative is being led by former U.K Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his wife, Sarah. Yesterday, I had the great privilege of attending the campaign launch in Washington, under the auspices of the United Nations.
Child slaves cannot go to school. Children who are not in school are especially vulnerable to becoming slaves. Schools can be a great vehicle for increasing awareness of slavery both among children and the wider community. We see these realities across all our programs.
A World at School has embraced “zero child labor” as one of its key goals, knowing that child slavery and child labor are fundamental barriers to universal child education. Over the coming months, we will work with A World at School to identify opportunities to more effectively protect children at risk.
The power of education was much in evidence yesterday. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke to us movingly about receiving textbooks from UNICEF as a boy in the midst of the Korean War. The books let him continue his education. Though his classes were held outside, he remembered that inside the books was an admonishment: “Work hard and give back.”
A World at School has named 500 youth ambassadors. Among those who spoke yesterday were Kainat Riaz and Shazia Ramzan, Pakistani girls who were shot on the same bus with Malala Yousafaza. They were equally powerful, amazing and eloquent young women. The Taliban fears educating girls more than they fear bullets, they said. Oppression and servitude cannot persist in the face of awareness and enlightenment.
That is the mission of Free the Slaves, too. To bring children and their parents the knowledge that will protect them from slavery. We will persist in that mission until slavery is studied only in the history books read by children at school.
It isn’t every day that a child slavery survivor from Africa is a featured speaker at a congressional briefing. But this week, Capitol Hill witnessed the award-winning advocate and child trafficking survivor, James Kofi Annan, speaking alongside long time anti-slavery champion Senator Tom Harkin, to address the global injustice of child labor.
The Alliance to End Slavery & Trafficking (ATEST) and the Child Labor Coalition hosted the panel to discuss how to reduce exploitative child labor, reflect on the progress that grassroots and governmental efforts have made, and promote the international benefits of ending child trafficking.
James Kofi Annan, founder of FTS frontline partner Challenging Heights, opened the discussion by acknowledging that although the U.S. has passed measures to combat exploitative child labor, there is still much work to be done. “We have made lots of progress, but we could do so much more,” James said. He remarked that vulnerable countries like Ghana need the U.S. to pressure their governments by shaming their lax enforcement of anti-slavery laws.
Sen. Harkin said was is honored to be in the same room as James. “I just wish I could duplicate James so we could have a leader like him in every country to end child labor,” said Harkin.
The senator focused his remarks on child trafficking issues found in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. He announced that by 2020, he has set a goal to decrease child slavery in these areas by 70 percent. He has led congressional efforts to pass legislation that would prohibit child labor and the production of goods that promote child trafficking. Although he is retiring, he stated, “I may be retiring from the Senate, but I am not retiring on this issue.”
Also featured on the panel were policy advocates from Solidarity Center, GoodWeave and the U.S. Department of Labor. They highlighted the economic and security gains that could occur when child slavery is abolished.
Solidarity Center Director Shawna Bader-Blau stated that “collective bargaining is a requirement for any long term plan to be successful in creating fair and sustainable labor solutions,” and that it is the “creation of jobs in our partnering countries that drives down poverty, which is the root of many exploitation cases.”
Claude Fontheim of GoodWeave noted that a “long term issue such as child exploitation needs a long term investment.” The Labor Department’s Carol Pier explained that for the government to have the greatest impact, it needs to be “intimately aware of the problems and shortcoming in countries’ labor laws.”
The briefing concluded with encouragement to pass federal legislation to build transparency in business supply chains, encourage corporate accountability, and promote good governance in democracies around the world.
Religious and political figures gathered on Capitol Hill last week to raise awareness about one of the world’s most challenging child slavery problems: restavek slavery in Haiti.
The Church World Service and The Episcopal Church, in cooperation with Congressman Chris Smith and Congresswoman Frederica Wilson organized the briefing to highlight the political, economic and ethical dimensions of child trafficking in Haiti.
Haiti is ranked as the world’s second worst hotspot for slavery on the Global Slavery Index with an estimated 209,000 slaves out of a total population 10.2 million. Many of the slaves are “restaveks,” part of a longstanding system of child domestic servitude in Haiti.
“One thing we hold in common is concern for children. Regardless of where we are in our point in life, we are very much aware of the fact that each of us holds responsibility for the future,” Church World Service President and CEO Rev. John McCullough said to open the panel. “This conversation will be about how we can play an important role in helping to make sure the children of Haiti have that opportunity to know what hope looks like, and to be able to have a sense that the future holds all kinds of possibilities for them.”
Congresswoman Wilson said that she and Congressman Smith will introduce a resolution tor the U.S. to observe the National Day for the Elimination of Restavek. Wilson said the resolution will call on the U.S. government to prioritize reconstruction and assistance efforts in Haiti, as well as the abolition of trafficking through prevention, the prosecution of traffickers, and the reintegration of child slavery survivors into their families.
Bishop Marc Andrus of The Episcopal Diocese of California told the briefing that “The eyes of God are always watching,” even though people may choose not to see the slaves in their midst. “Slaves are always by definition somewhat invisible, by choice,” he noted. “We make a social compact with each other not to see slaves.”
Emile Brutus, the deputy director of research and professor of political science and public and social policy at the Institute of Economic and Commercial Studies in Haiti, explained the restavek system. A restavek is a child who does not live with his or her biological parents; the child has been entrusted into the hands of another family. The biological parents trust those people to care for the child, but that trust is broken when the child is brought into domestic servitude. They are forced to work in dangerous jobs, they are not well nourished, they do not have access to school, they do not have access to healthcare, and they are victims of violence.
“I cannot fathom how adults have reduced children to a situation where they are dehumanized,” Brutus said. “I feel shame for the country I’m from.”
“It is a crime,” said Brutus. “It is a crime against innocence and childhood.”
But it is time to acknowledge this crime.
FTS Executive Director Maurice Middleberg said that since joining Free the Slaves, he has had the opportunity to visit community-based programs in Haiti that address the root causes of the restavek system, “so that the problem can be prevented at the source rather than having to rescue child after the fact.”
Free the Slaves works to foster solidarity in the community around the rights of children, and to provide advocacy training so Haitains can demand better resources for education and law enforcement from their government.
“The reason the parents are agreeing to give up a child to another family is because they are in a position of vulnerability,” Middleberg said.
“We are concerned about the children of Haiti and the treatment that we have been hearing, we are concerned that the government is not doing enough to protect these children,” said Congresswoman Wilson. “So we want to travel to Haiti to find out what we can do as the United States government to help the government of Haiti protect these children and to stop what we consider an abomination. To see how we can reunite children with their families, even if it is something we have to look into the treasury of the United States to do. But it is time to stop it.”
When you think of the Discovery Channel, you probably think of documentaries about sharks, bears and fishermen. But Discovery has teamed up with others to produce a series of short video segments highlighting barriers to education for girls and women in sub-Saharan Africa, specifically in the most underserved communities of Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya.
One of these segments will feature a former child slave in Ghana, Mabel, 15, who now can attend school after being rescued by FTS frontline partner Challenging Heights.
“It was an incredible privilege to work with Mabel, she is such a friendly and confident young woman who can talk really eloquently about the challenges she has faced and overcome in her life,” the video segment producer, Chris Morgan, tells us. “Even more inspiring is her positive view on her future and her determination to change her life through education.”
After her mother died and her father left the family, Mabel and her siblings went to live with relatives. There, Mabel was forced to work around the clock. She would wake up early in the mornings to collect wood and help cook maize porridge. By afternoon she was making lunch for everyone on the fishing boats, and in the evening she started prepping for dinner. Late at night she was sent out fishing, and was forced to wake up early the next morning to repeat this full day of work.
“I hardly slept at all,” said Mabel. “Every evening I hoped that there would be a storm, so I wouldn’t have to go out on the lake.”
Her relatives had children of their own who were allowed to go to school, but Mabel and her siblings were not.
One day, two case workers from Challenging Heights came to visit. They told Mabel’s relatives that the law states that children have to go to school and that they wanted to take Mabel and her siblings with them. When her relatives refused to let them go, the challenging Heights team came back with police to free them.
Mabel and her siblings now live in a Challenging Heights safe house and go to school. Mabel is delighted to be receiving an education, and says: “I want to become a nurse so I can prove to my family that I can make it in life.”
The Discovery Learning Alliance video segments will be used in classroom and community settings in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya to help teach the importance of education.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of three dispatches we will feature this week written by Free the Slaves Executive Director Maurice Middleberg during his recent trip to India.
DATELINE: Majgama village, Araria District, Bihar State, India
Ishtiaq Hasib was only 10 when the trafficker came. The man befriended the boy, and five of his friends, as they walked back and forth to school.
“Good jobs. Money,” he told the boys. “Clothes. Mobile phones.” All these could be had if the boys went with the trafficker.
But it had to be a secret. Parents were not to be told – they would be so proud when the boys brought home these treasures.
It was an enticing offer for a boy in Majgama, a very poor rural village where people earn $2 to $3 a day as laborers on farms. Cattle, water buffalo and chickens live side-by-side with people here in simple dwellings. The boys were dazzled by the trafficker’s promises.
Of course, the promises were lies. Ishtiaq and his friends landed in a factory in India’s capital city, Delhi, manufacturing bindis, the symbol many Indians wear on their foreheads. No wages were paid – only enough food for the boys to subsist.
“From the beginning, we were beaten because we didn’t know what to do,” Ishtiaq told me. The trafficker would slap them and beat them with tools. Ishtiaq saw one boy beaten severely, causing head injuries. Boys who were hurt too badly to work were thrown onto the street, he said.
“When my child was taken away it felt like I had been shot in the heart,” recalls Ishtiaq’s father, Mohammed Hasib.
Fortunately, Ishtiaq and his family were lucky. Four days after he arrived in Delhi, a police raid liberated 96 children from the bindi factory.
At this point, MSEMVS, a local Indian NGO supported by Free the Slaves, intervened to prevent future cases of trafficking in Ishtiaq’s village. His father agreed to lead the formation of a village committee dedicated to protecting residents from trafficking. Educational sessions were organized for villagers, including the children. These sessions have taught villagers about the perils of trafficking and how to recognize traffickers. The committee is also working to gain access to essential services and credit, so that people are less vulnerable to the lures of traffickers.
“We were unaware that such things happened,” Mr. Hasib told me. “Now we know, and the trafficker doesn’t come here anymore.”
With help from FTS partner MSEMVS, Mr. Hasib has reached out to four surrounding villages to help them organize committees that can educate and protect their communities. They are learning the danger signs of trafficking. Mr. Hasib and the MSEMVS activist have given their mobile phone numbers to the other villages so they can call if they see signs of trouble. Through this process, six missing children have been identified; one has been tracked down and rescued and efforts are underway to find the others.
“Traffickers are now scared of us,” said Mr. Hasib.
What is needed now is to expand this circle of prevention. That involves educating and mobilizing parents, children and communities. Free the Slaves and MSEMVS are working together to ensure that many more villages can protect themselves from the predations of traffickers. With the help of our supporters, we can ensure that there are fewer cases like Ishtiaq’s.