Today there are up to 27 million slaves in the world, more than at any time in history, even including during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In many cases, the slave systems are facilitated by the spike in global trade in a quest for global proﬁts. Though that trade is often called ‘free’, what is in fact free is the movement of the captives across borders – free as in easy – and their labor – free as in unpaid.
Haiti is home to one form of slavery propelled by economic desperation. Parents who cannot feed or school their children regularly give them away in the hopes that the family receiving them will offer more than they themselves can. Instead, the children usually end up in forced servitude, as restavèk or “stay with’s.” Anywhere from
225,000 to 300,000 restavèk work every day from before sunup to way after sundown. The children are as young as three, with girls between six and 14 years old comprising 65% of the population. They are often sexually and physically abused.
Helia Lajeunesse is part of a group of restavèk who are raising visibility of and opposition to the system. The survivors are joined with other social sectors who are working for a more just economy, since abolition resides largely in eradicating the economic desperation of parents.
Helia is also part of a global movement of people working toward a world where no one is commodiﬁed, and where the dignity and rights of each can ﬂourish.
Helia Lajeunesse |Port-au-Prince, Haiti:
The restavèk system is modern slavery. When a family takes in a restavèk to live with them, they stop doing any work in the house. The restavèk child has to do everything. If the child doesn’t work hard enough, they beat them. The child can’t eat with the family, and usually doesn’t even eat the same food – just scraps. He or she sleeps on the ﬂoor, often in the kitchen. They don’t pay the child; they just give them a little food. They never send him or her to school. The family views that child as an animal.
It’s such a horrible system and it’s due to the economic situation of the country. You might have a family that has a lot of kids; that family can’t afford to give the child even food so they send him or her to the home of someone else, in the hopes that that person can provide better care.
Let me give you an example from my own life. I had ﬁve children. They lost their father. I couldn’t feed them. I was obliged to give four away, even though the youngest was only three years old. I only kept the littlest who wasn’t even a year old then.
When I went to Washington to talk about restavèk, what made me so sad was to go to a museum that had an exhibit on slavery. I saw a picture of a woman with a hoe, a basket under her elbow, and a rope around her waist. That’s how my life had been as a restavèk. It made me cry.
Here’s my story. My mother died when I was seven months old. I went to live with my grandmother, but she died when I was ﬁve. My relatives didn’t have the means to care for me, so they gave me to someone. I went to live at that person’s house as a restavèk. I was the one who got up ﬁrst and went to bed last. Whatever work had to happen there, I was the one to do it. I got up at 4:00 to make the ﬁre and cook the food. I was the one who had to go get the water and carry it back up the mountain on my head. They didn’t give me any food from what they ate; I had to go out into the street and scrounge around to get my own food. They used to beat me on the head.
One day, I was coming back from delivering food to the child of the house, which I had to carry on my head to her at school every day. There was a man holding a school under a thatched hut. He called to me, “Come be part of this school.” I said, “No, I can’t, because when I go home, my aunt [the common term for the guardian] will beat me.” He said, “You should come.” I went. Then when I went home, I said, “There was a man holding a school today, so I attended.” She said, “What? You went to school?” I said, “Yes, and could you please give me a little pencil and a notebook?” She asked me what I thought I was doing and started beating me.
Poverty and misery made me not know how to read and write, or count in my head, until I was a grown-up.
Through my childhood and youth, I escaped three times and went to different homes, four in all. But each time, I suffered as badly or worse than before. I was abused so much. Misery was killing me.
When I was nine years old, the child of the home fell down at school and hurt her knee. I told her mother that. The mother called the police to come arrest me, and I spent a day in the police station. Everyone said to her, “Your daughter just fell down. You shouldn’t do that to this girl.” So she came to free me.
I said to myself, “One day, my life is going to change.” Despite that, though, I kept on suffering misery.
A young man started liking me, a person of good faith. He brought me to Port-au-Prince and he got us a little room to stay in. He gave me ﬁve children. We were living in such poverty. Then in 2004, a gang of men broke into my house. They raped me and my oldest daughter. My husband tried to protest, and they took him away; we’ve never seen him again. My daughter got pregnant, so then I had a grandchild from rape. I was raising ﬁve children and a grandchild all by myself.
That’s when I found KOFAVIV, the Commission of Women Victim-to-Victim. It’s made up of women who’ve been raped and who were restavèk. They supported me and embraced me and didn’t let me go. They got me health care, got me tested for HIV-AIDS, and found a psychologist who could talk with me. They also got me to be part of a reﬂection circle, which is sharing about what you’re suffering with a group of women and learning how to move forward. Only then did I learn that my life wasn’t over.
But even though my life got a little better, I still suffer so much because my son and my daughter aren’t with me. The reason is that the person who killed their father is close by, and they say they don’t want to come to the neighborhood where I live. As long as that man is around, they’re scared he can come back for them.
So my 18-year-old daughter is still living as a restavèk. That hurts my heart so much. Here I am struggling against the system, but I still have a child who is in it. I can’t live in peace. I know that family isn’t treating her well. They haven’t even put her in school.
I’m struggling to end slavery in Haiti because I know how I suffered. Even though my life hasn’t changed 100%, it’s not the same way it was. Now I can advocate for people, I can travel to the US to stand up in front of crowds of people and speak.
We do a lot of things in KOFAVIV. We’re working with victims, women who were restavèk, to help them re-establish their lives. We also embrace children who are restavèk today to help them not get discouraged by life. We have a school that we’ve established in Martissant where children who don’t have a mother or father, or who were raised as restavèk, can now go study. We do professional training for 50 youth.
Another thing we do is raise the level of consciousness of people who keep restavèk children. (But I have to tell you, it’s not just families who have restavèk; people also treat their own children this way.) We do theater with them, tell them stories and jokes, try to create a relaxed ambiance. We help them understand that when someone lives in their house, they shouldn’t view her or him as a restavèk. That person is a child. Make their lives easy. Send them to school, give them knowledge. Look on that child as though it’s your own child.
We also help parents in the countryside who think they’re doing their child a favor by sending them to go live with a family in town. They think their child is ﬁne. We encourage them to do whatever is within their means to keep their child with them and not give them away into servitude.
Helia Lajeunesse and Alina “Tibebe” Cajuste in front of the Lincoln Monument in Washington, D.C. The two former child slaves from Haiti are now advocates for a world without slavery. Photo by Tim Murphy.
We’re also getting neighbors to know they have a responsibility, too. We encourage people, when they know a family is mistreating a child, to try to go talk with them. We say, “If you hear someone beating a child in their home, go knock on the door and talk to the person. Tell them to stop beating the child. Tell them that this is a human being and they need to treat them well.” If you go talk a ﬁrst time and a second time and nothing changes, the third time you can take another level of action. Go talk to the police.
When we can’t confront the person directly because we’re worried about what will happen to the child afterward, we put a tape recorder outside the violator’s window to record them beating the child. Then we take that tape to the radio station. The family hears it on the radio and is ashamed, and hopefully gets a different understanding about treatment of the child.
We talk to the press and radio about our work. We held a march in Port-au-Prince with thousands of people. We wore T-shirts that said, “I’m against the restavèk system. And you, what are you waiting for?” We did theater in the street, the press was there, everyone saw it. It was beautiful. We gave ﬂyers with the same message to everyone who passed on foot and in cars.
We’re seeing a lot of response from our work. I don’t say that everyone is becoming 100% aware of how wrong this slavery is. We’re only in Port-au-Prince; we need it to change out in the countryside, too. But still, we’re seeing people change the way they’re treating the children who are living with them and their own children. For example, there was a woman who used to beat the restavèk child a lot. We invited her to the march. She brought her husband and the child who was living with her. That child used to sleep on a piece of cardboard in a kitchen. Even though the woman didn’t give the child a bed, at least now the girl has somewhere clean to lie down. And now they send the child to see her own family in Jacmel; they didn’t used to do that. The girl is going to school, too. We asked her, “How is your aunt treating you?” She said, “She doesn’t beat me anymore. She even plays with me.”
I feel that this slavery will end. It’s an enormous struggle. But just like I’ve learned and am speaking out, everyone will become aware that this system has to end. We need people to stand up for this, not just in KOFAVIV, but in the US, too. I ask everyone to lend their participation, whether it’s through their courage or their ideas, to help this struggle advance, and to stand strong in the work we’re doing.
We’re going to continue struggling to do away with this system completely. I can’t say how soon this will happen, but it will. That’s certain.
Note: This interview was taken before the January 12, 2010 earthquake.
To learn more about Helia Lajeunesse’s organization, Commission of Women Victim-to-Victim (KOFAVIV), please see www.kofaviv.org and www.beyondborders.net.
 Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (University of California Press, 2004), 8.
 UNICEF, in its report Haiti 2010-2011: Mid-Year Review of 2010 Humanitarian Action Report, estimates 225,000. Child right advocates typically put the number at 300,000.
 US Department of State’s Ofﬁce to Combat and Monitor Trafﬁcking in Persons, Trafﬁcking in Persons Report 2009, US Department of State, www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2009/123140.htm (accessed June 27, 2011).
Inspired? Here are a few suggestions for getting involved!
- Not for Sale can connect you to organized efforts to end human trafﬁcking and slavery. Its website provides detailed action items speciﬁc to academic, faith, business, and artistic communities (www.notforsalecampaign.org/action).
- Don’t support manufacturing made by enslaved people. Know who made what you buy and whether they use child and forced labor (www.free2work.org/companies).
- Learn where speciﬁc examples of slavery exist in your community and around the world with Not for
- Sale’s slavery map (www.slaverymap.org).
And check out the following resources and organizations:
- Coalition of Immokalee Workers Anti-Slavery Campaign, www.ciw-online.org/slavery.html
- Freedom Network U.S.A. to Empower Trafﬁcked and Enslaved Persons, www.freedomnetworkusa.org
- Humanity United, www.humanityunited.org
- Alliance to End Slavery & Trafﬁcking, www.endslaveryandtrafﬁcking.org
- Campaign to End Child Servitude (Haiti-speciﬁc) of Beyond Borders, www.beyondborders.net/WhatWeDo/EndingChildSlavery.aspx
- Restavèk Freedom Foundation (Haiti-speciﬁc), www.restavekfreedom.org
- Polaris Project, www.polarisproject.org
- End Child Prostitution and Trafﬁcking, www.ecpatusa.org
- Free the Slaves, www.freetheslaves.net
- John Bowe, Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy (Random House, 2007)
- Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter, The Slave Next Door: Human Trafﬁcking and Slavery in America Today (University of California Press, 2009)