1.13.2010

Haiti's Other Earthquake

Restavek and Child Slavery: Haiti's Other Earthquake

Haiti holds a romantic and tragic place in the historical imagination -- a nation birthed by a successful slave rebellion, it was the first to abolish slavery in the Western hemisphere and briefly served as a beacon of hope for American abolitionists. However, it never realized its promise, for reasons that scholars and analysts can debate ad infinitum.

Perhaps most egregiously, its grinding poverty is so pervasive that an estimated 300,000 children have been given up by their parents to become restav├Ęks -- a creole term for children sent to become house servants to wealthier Haitians. According to human rights workers and survivors of the child-slavery system, these children are forced to work long hours, are often kept out of school, are barely fed and clothed, and are routinely abused physically, emotionally and sexually.


Now, professional recruiters have made the situation even worse by making a business out of the longstanding informal practice. Last June, a United Nations expert on contemporary forms of slavery, Gulnara Shahinian, visited Haiti at the invitation of the government and issued a report that included the recommendations summarized below:

Since it is still struggling to recover from devastating storms in 2008 and will now be focusing effort on earthquake rescue, relief and repair, it's not likely that Haiti will have the resources to enact the reforms advocated by the UN, so private efforts such as Cadet's take on greater significance. Other high-profile philanthropic efforts include Haitian American musician Wyclef Jean's Yele Foundation. In 2008, Jean spoke to Al Jazeerah about his efforts to combat Haiti's food crisis:
Jean also sprang into action about the earthquake via Twitter,tweeting a way to contribute to the relief effort via text message.

Jean's efforts to combat poverty in Haiti are complemented by the work of other philanthropists, including former Pres. Bill Clinton, who serves as the UN special envoy to Haiti. He toured the island in March, 2009 with UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon to survey efforts by his foundation and other organizations to expand education and nutrition programs. Clinton has been upbeat about Haiti's future, saying it...
"...offers unique opportunities for public and private investment to improve health and education in ways that will be good for Haitians and all their partners in our interdependent world."

Now that the earthquake has delivered to the country what Mr. Ban has called "catastrophic" and Haitian President Rene Preval has called "unimaginable," considerably more effort will be required to ensure that those investments are made and the benefits trickle down to the poorest Haitians so that they will be able to feed and care for their own children. Ultimately, only economic development and sustained human rights activism will finally allow the island to realize the dream that its founders fought so desperately to achieve more than 200 years ago.

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