Smith Maxime is usually high in Haiti’s rural hills, where many poor families choose to send a child away to the city to work as a domestic servant. His job as FTS Haiti Director is to help stop the flow of children.
But yesterday, Smith was on Capitol Hill in Washington for a congressional briefing. His goal there: build awareness that many children sent to work away from home in Haiti wind up in slavery. Also: let the U.S. human rights community know that most of these “restavek” slaves in Haiti are girls.
“It’s a gender issue,” Smith told the packed briefing room. “Two of three children in restavek are girls.”
It’s been three years since Haiti’s devastating earthquake. The disaster has worsened women’s vulnerability to violence, including the enslavement of girls.
Smith noted that exact slavery figures are not available, but that studies have indicated between 100,000 and 400,000 children are restaveks today. Many parents believe their child may get an education and better nutrition if they’re sent to work as a domestic servant. Some do, but many don’t. The earthquake has made things worse, Smith said.
“The Haitian economy does not produce enough resources to take care of all Haitian citizens,” he said.
Community activists will soon be organizing to convince Haitian officials to take nationwide action.
“We need a strategic plan from the government to eradicate slavery,” Smith said.
He also called for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to fully implement policies to promote gender equality and family development in Haiti, as well as implement USAID’s new counter-trafficking initiative.
You can read about the FTS Model Communities program to educate rural parents on the dangers of sending children to work outside the home here.
When it comes to fighting slavery, creativity and innovation are essential. So Free the Slaves and our frontline partners use art to teach community members around the world about their rights.
We’ve found that picture strips are remarkably successful. The images allow those in slavery—and those who are vulnerable to slavery—to quickly see that life can be different.
“They came to identify their own situation when looking at these cartoons,” says Xavier Plassat, a FTS board member and frontline organizer with the Pastoral Land Commission in Brazil.
“They used to tell me, in their own words: ‘eu me achei‘ (translation: I found myself),” Xavier says. ”Because the laborers were able to visualize themselves in the pictures, they could learn how to prevent similar situations from happening to them or others.”
In Haiti, picture books are used for small-group discussions in remote villages where parents often send children away to work as domestic help in cities, in hopes they’ll be fed and educated. Many of the children end up in slavery, and the books “open the eyes of parents who sent children” according to FTS Haiti Coordinator Smith Maxime.
The pictures act “like a fire that heats the consciousness of parents,” Smith says. Village leaders, trained by our Haitian partner Fondasyon Limyè Lavi, guide parents through a story of children falling into slavery.
“At first contact with the book, parents feel the need to go retrieve their children,” Smith says. “Pictures speak a thousand words.”
Pictures are carefully crafted to tell stories of individuals in risky situations, such as those intending to migrate, as well as stories of enslaved individuals and the abuse they are suffering. The stories are designed to teach community members what their rights are, and how to assert them.
In Nepal, for example, one strip tells the story of a woman who is offered a job abroad by a tricky trafficker. She is enslaved, and then jailed for being undocumented. When she eventually returns home, she seeks justice – ultimately sending the trafficker to jail – and she shares her story to warn others. The strip was developed by FTS partner AATWIN, and is being used by all our Nepali partner groups.
Pictures help FTS bridge communication gaps between communities and activists, making learning more accessible and interesting. Art is particularly effective in areas where people are unable to read.
“The reality is that children often don’t have the words to convey what they are needing and wanting,” says FTS Associate Programs Director Ginny Baumann. “So the pictures form stories that allow adult participants to try to imagine what the children might be feeling.”
In some cases, pictures help people escape slavery.
“There’s a situation where a trafficked worker in another part of India, where he didn’t speak the language, used a comic strip picture about slavery to show the police the situation he was in,” Ginny explains. “Using the leaflet, the police could then help him get back home with the help of our partner organization.”
Slavery thrives when the vulnerable are discouraged from thinking and reflecting on their situation. Visual images can be helpful because they sometimes raise questions more effectively than words can. Art can get groups of people to think together about their lives, what is happening, and what is right and wrong.