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.
FTS is proud to share the news that slavery survivor and Ghanaian frontline anti-slavery activist James Kofi Annan has been awarded the 2013 World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child.
The prize is determined by children who vote for one of three nominees. More than 2.2 million kids cast ballots from around the world this year, with James receiving a majority of the vote.
The announcement came yesterday at a Children’s Press Conference held in several countries on the same day. James was in Stockholm to hear that he had won.
James was sold into slavery at age 6, and was forced into dangerous work on fishing boats in Ghana for seven years. He finally taught himself to read and got a college education. Now — with a rescue boat, recovery shelter and school — James does for others what he wished someone had done for him. He helps enslaved children restart their lives.
“By rescuing others, I feel I’m rescuing myself,” James says about his work. I feel that I’m correcting the injustice that was done when I was young.”
James was recognized by the World’s Children’s Prize Foundation as a Child Rights Hero, and nominated for the prize this past March, along with two other candidates. All three heroes receive prize money to further their work.
What do you get when you combine the world-class photography of Lisa Kristine, the innovative frontline anti-slavery projects of Free the Slaves, and a vivacious 9-year-old California girl who has decided she wants to help end child slavery?
You get a powerful feature-length documentary to spread the message that slavery still exists but can be overcome.
The film is called “#standwithme.” It chronicles how artistry and activism can build bridges to freedom for millions trapped in slavery around the world. The film is currently being shot by Portland, Oregon-based Stillmotion, and it’s expected to be released in 2014.
It will tell the story of Lisa Kristine’s heart-stopping photographs of slavery hotspots where Free the Slaves works. (Purchase Lisa’s prints and book here – proceeds benefit Free the Slaves.)
A California family saw Lisa’s slavery photos in her gallery – and decided to snap into action. Vivienne Harr raised thousands of dollars for the anti-slavery movement by selling lemonade. Her family has started bottling the recipe and selling it online and in small grocery stores. Free the Slaves is one of several organizations that will benefit from Make A Stand Lemon-Aid sales.
The Stillmotion team was in Washington this week to film an extended interview with our executive director, Maurice Middleberg. They’ll be heading to the frontlines of slavery soon to photograph how the Free the Slaves model helps people break free and stay free.
Stay tuned – we’ll keep you posted when the film is ready!