Haiti, the country of mountains. The country where Woord en Daad has been working for years, even in times when it was difficult to achieve anything, when many organizations withdrew. After this week I remember again why we work in Haiti and how we want to make a difference here.
By Rina Molenaar
The country touches me because you feel and smell the poverty on the streets, but at the same time surprising encounters encourage you again. I meet young people who believe in their country and who work hard rebuilding it. However, this requires optimism and courage, because the structures of the country are broken and sustainable change asks for creativity. For instance, regarding the longstanding structure of the so called ‘restaveks’, or child slaves. Young children from poor families are accommodated within rich families to do domestic work. Often, the children are exploited, have no access to education and in the worst case they are abused.
Haiti free of child slavery
It is Tuesday, the day we delve into the issue of ‘restaveks’, the child slaves. First of all, we visit the office of our partner organization Restavek Freedom. Christelle tells me her story. ‘I lived with my grandmother. I went to school now and then, but most of all I had to work hard. My future? I didn’t think about it. I would stay with my grandmother until… yes, until when? Then I came into contact with a social worker of Restavek Freedom. She talked with me, told me about the opportunities I had. My grandmother did not see these opportunities and eventually I went to a shelter. I heard similar or even worse stories from other children. Together we learned to dream, together we took steps. Now I am studying at the university and have only one dream: Make Haiti free of child slavery!
After Christelle we listen to a colleague of Restavek. He organizes conferences for preachers, because they have a big influence on the communities. ‘I remember the reverend who joined all discussions during the conference, but after three days he burst into tears. He suddenly realized that his small niece living in his house was a restavek as well. She did domestic work, did not go to school and he thought he was doing well by helping his poorer family members and by giving her shelter and food.’ The day after the conference the preacher went to a school in the neighborhood to sign up his niece as a pupil.
After these impressive stories we visit BPM (Brigade de Protection des Mineurs), the police department responsible for the protection of minors. De agents tell their story. On average about five children per day report to the police, often they have experienced a lot. Because it takes some time before they decide to go to the police. BPM offers shelter during the first 48 hours, after which they are transferred to organizations like Restavek Freedom.
The police shows the shelter where the children stay temporarily. A space that looks more like a prison cell than a shelter for children. Children who have sometimes had the most horrible experiences. The shelter is situated behind the office, out of sight of other visitors. That is exactly why the barred shelter is locked. You never know who walks by and who may hurt the children.
A young girl of about fourteen years stands in the doorway of her cell. The gate has been opened shortly for our visit. She stares at us with lifeless eyes. What will she see? A big group of people that passes by. What will she think? What has she gone through that made her go to the police? My heart goes out to her. She deserves a bit of rest and someone to whom she can confide her story. She does not deserve this empty space with a cold floor and a hard bed with a thin blanket. I shortly touch her brown arm. Her face does not reveal anything, she just stands there without any emotion. We have to continue and leave her behind…
One by one
In the car, on our way to the next organization, I realize how happy I am that hundreds of people conquered the Mont Ventoux for this girl on 22 September, 2018. And not just for this girl, but for many others. We can only return these children – mostly girls – to a positive environment if we cooperate and break the structures of the country. By raising awareness among preachers and communities, by lobbying the government and by reaching children one by one.
This has to be stopped. And luckily this can be stopped. If this girl will ever get children she will do anything to prevent them from becoming restaveks.