Would you like to go to school?
Influencing Communities in Rural Haiti
Walking into the rural communities of southern Haiti gives one a glimpse into the challenges of rural families. The beautiful mountains are quickly blurred by the realization that they create some of the insurmountable obstacles that lead families to send their children to the cities to live with distant family members and oftentimes strangers just for the hope of attending school.
This is one of our greatest challenges. Many children in Haiti live so far from schools that it is nearly impossible to attend school while living at home with their parents. Strangers and even family members will promise the parents a good education for their child but the reality is that most of these children will never see the inside of a school. “Let me take this child for you, I will provide everything in exchange for a little housework”. So continues the cycle of Restavek in Haiti. How many times has a parent recounted this mantra to us?
As Child Advocates for Restavek Freedom, we understand first hand that while these promises of education and a better life are alluring, they are rarely kept. We hear the stories of these children, see the sad expressions on their faces and hear the desperation and fatigue in their voices. “I just wanted to go to school and now I will never be able to improve myself.” Our vision is of a Haiti without restavek where every child has a voice and a chance to reach his goals.” We want to change this sad reality and encourage families to keep their children and join with other community members to establish schools in their own localities.
Earlier this month two of my colleagues and I visited a rural area in southern Haiti with one clear goal in mind: to influence the community to keep their children and to make sure parents understand the difficult and degrading realities that may await their child. We joined a group from Cincinnati, Ohio, who were there to support our mission, provide pastoral training, and facilitate the development of community vision.
People from the town were invited to attend the training and learn more about the reality of what occurs once they no longer have contact with their children and how this system of restavek affects the life of their children, community and country. We engaged over 300 community members in candid, open and heart breaking conversation and were able to share stories of children living in restavek and their struggle to survive as well as their desire to return home. The community members opened up and began sharing terrible experiences of their own and began looking for ways to overcome the challenges and keep their children with them.
The reaction of the participants was amazing. One man from the group, a father of seven children, recounted a story of a woman who asked him to give her one of his children. He was told by the woman that she would “take care of everything” for the child. He thought for a long time about it, and finally decided he would give his child to the woman. Thankfully, soon after giving his child away, the man attended a discussion in the community led by one of our child advocates in which much light was shed on the abuse, neglect and isolation experienced by many children living in restavek. The man changed his mind and decided he did not want his child living as a restavek.
Another woman who had sent her child to Port au Prince now wants to go and bring her home. Others shared how they had given their own children away but took in children from the country side to work in their homes. This was truly eye-opening as we began to understand that the rural community is not only a sending community but they also have children living under their roof as restavek.
There is much work to be done in order to influence and educate rural communities about the realities of restavek.The exciting part is that these communities are open to listening and engaging in discussion about this issue.At first there was reluctance, but as the week continued we gained their trust and the relationship started to grow.In the end, many people gave testimony to the fact that they were about to send their children away but now they will not.
They are like parents everywhere…they want education for their children and for their children to have opportunities that they never had.Now the challenge for us is how to bring education to this community and to other rural communities in Haiti.We advocate for restavek children and want to do everything we can to prevent more children from entering that life threatening system of abuse. We work with Compassion and Courage as we warn parents everywhere against these dangers. We want children to be able to go to school while living in their families of origin.
These stories are true examples of the changes that will occur once people begin to understand the potential dangers of this system. We are grateful to be part of this change, to realize a new vision for Haiti!
Written by Jean Osbert Victor, Child Advocate, Restavek Freedom Foundation