Haitian twins Natalie and Natasha Floreal were reunited with their widowed mother through an UMCOR-supported program. They had lived apart from her, working in slave-like servitude, but now enjoy UMCOR-supported schooling. Photo: Beyond Borders
UMCOR and partner Beyond Borders address root causes of a child slavery.
Following the catastrophic earthquake of 2010 and intense efforts to address widespread needs in Haiti since then, one persistent need may not seem so obvious: tackling the distinctive Haitian problem known in Creole as restavèk — in effect, child slavery.
The name derives from the French reste avec (“to stay with”) and refers to the practice of sending children to grow up away from home in the care of others. It’s a practice embedded in Haitian culture — as many as one in five Haitian children may live apart from their parents.
Restavèk has its origins in deep rural poverty, notes Thodleen Dessources, program manager for Haiti for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), herself a Haitian national.
“It has long been a traditional practice for modest or poor families to send children to stay with better-off relatives in a city,” Dessources says. “They see it as a chance for education and opportunities for the child — ideally, an entry into a better life and a better future.”
Over time, however, the practice has been corrupted. Today, profit-driven individuals prey on poor rural families, often placing children in urban situations that amount to enslavement. “It is a complete affront to the rights of children,” says Dessources.
UMCOR is responding to this situation in partnership with Beyond Borders, a group dedicated since the 1990s to ending child-exploitation. A vital part of Beyond Borders’ work is its Model Community Initiative in Haiti’s southeast.
The initiative raises awareness among parents about the dangers that accompany restavèk, offers education locally for children and seeks to improve families’ livelihoods. “It addresses the root causes of forced migration, so there is less incentive for families to send their children away,” Dessources says.
David Diggs, director of Beyond Borders, reports remarkable success. “Communities have become so mobilized that about a quarter of the children already lost to this practice have been found by their parents, freed and brought back home, where they are integrated into local schools and provided other support by Child Protection Brigades trained by Beyond Borders.”
UMCOR is helping bolster local access to primary education and improving quality — especially for children most at risk. “UMCOR’s targeted investments in education and sustainable livelihoods combat the desperation that leads many Haitian parents to send their children away,” Diggs says.
The entire effort is part of a broad social movement in Haiti, including the approval last year of an anti-trafficking law. According to Diggs, “Much work remains, and resources are still needed for this movement to continue to grow. But with partners like UMCOR engaged in the struggle,” he says, “I have great hope.”
David Tereshchuk, journalist, media critic and regular contributor to www.umcor.org
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