After working with restavèk children in Haiti for six years, Jonathan Scoonover says he’s been able to detect subtle changes in attitudes towards child servitude. Then, it was something few people talked about. Now, he would like to see research carried out to track a shift in perception from social fact to social problem.
Extreme poverty, leaving parents unable to meet the needs of all their children, and the long-standing, culturally-ingrained nature of the restavèk system, means multi-sector support is needed before this becomes widespread, of course.
Equitas is a philanthropic organisation seeking justice for the vulnerable, with a major focus on the 200,000 to 300,000 children conservatively estimated to be living in servitude (or restavèk, from the French rester avec) in Haiti.
The organisation funded a recent report, Toward Effective Mental Intervention for Children Formerly in Restavèk, which describes restavèk children as modern-day slaves, controlled through violence, and exploited by the heads of households they work for.
“Often far from home,” it continues, “isolated and excluded within their own environments, restavèk children have no viable options, are under physical control, and thus cannot walk away. Restavèk children are abused physically, verbally, emotionally and sexually; forced to do age-inappropriate chores; not sent to school; and treated as inferior to the children of the family.”
Equitas is now supporting dissemination of No Strings child protection film, The Wishing Ring, with a grant of $70,000.
“The Wishing Ring film is very powerful, and kind of catches you off guard at the same time. It allows you to enter into a person’s story without being judgemental,” says Jonathan, Equitas’s programme officer for preventing and alleviating child servitude in Haiti.
“What we really like about the No Strings programme is the way it creatively combines media with interactive puppet making. This allows children to mirror what they’ve seen in the films with their own stories, told through puppets they have made.”
Equitas takes a holistic approach, working with partners on the ground from a prevention, alleviation and also a restoration perspective, where they provide children who have come out of the system with mental health care, and support through provisions like transitional housing, social skills and income-generating skills education.
Many former restavèk children have experienced complex trauma, Jonathan explains. Many have little to go to once they are replaced. Girls are often turned out at 15 or 16, not uncommonly because they are pregnant. Boys are often turned away, or run away, a little younger. Many end up in street gangs.
“Of all the levels we work on, in many ways it’s prevention that really gets me excited; anything that addresses the attitudes, behaviour and knowledge base that allows this to happen in the first place. The Wishing Ring is something we believe will definitely support this work.
“I think children will watch and recognise children they know in the film,” Jonathan adds. “It shows that you can speak up, that there are places you can go to for help. It works on a preventative level by influencing them as they grow up, understanding that it’s wrong to treat some children differently from others.
“It also shows children who are in the system that this isn’t the way it has to be. In Haiti, it’s not uncommon to have a very fatalistic view of life; this challenges that.”