When a Haitian man walked up to Noel Ismonin, a pastor from Canada working in Haiti, and offered to sell him an orphan boy for $50, Ismonin refused and managed to rescue the child.
That story, repeated on television and in newspapers around the world, galvanized attention to a horrid problem that seemed to arise full blown from the rubble of the earthquake in Haiti. Unscrupulous traffickers are snatching children and selling them into slavery.
In fact, Haiti arrested 10 Americans last month and accused them of kidnapping. The police chief, Frantz Thermilus, angrily asserted: "What surprises me is that these people would never do something like this in their own country."
Well, Mr. Police Chief, what surprises me is that you sanction child slavery in your own country. In Haiti, even at the best of times, thousands of children are enslaved each year — starved, abused, beaten and raped. And it's perfectly legal.
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Every year, thousands of desperately poor Haitian families hand over their young children to wealthier families in Port-au-Prince or other towns with the supposed agreement that the child will be fed, clothed and educated in exchange for working around the house. That's not the way it usually works.
There's even a term for these children: "restaveks," from the French words "reste" and "avec," meaning "rest with" or "stay with." The vast majority of these children, as young as 6, are turned into house slaves.
It's not a secret; everybody in Haiti knows. One former restavek, Jean R. Cadet, wrote a book about his experiences and started a foundation dedicated to stopping the practice. Cadet's biography notes: "As a restavek he lost his childhood as he worked from sunup to sundown. Like countless others, he dressed in rags, slept on the floor and endured countless beatings." Nearly two-thirds of the children given away as restaveks are girls, and it's no wonder they are preferred. Child rape in these homes is commonplace.
Domestic servitude is a common problem around the world, even in the United States. Police prosecute a dozen or more of these malefactors each year. But these cases are episodic, even unusual. Even in less-developed countries such as Thailand and India, where domestic servitude is common, it is still illegal, and at least occasionally perpetrators are prosecuted. Not so in Haiti. Even the State Department gives Haiti a pass because, it says, "Haiti has had a weak government" since 2004.
The department's annual human-trafficking report chastises and penalizes countries whose efforts to fight human trafficking are deemed insufficient. But Haiti is put to the side as a "special case" — along with Somalia, the world's most dysfunctional nation — even though in no other country is child slavery known to be so commonplace.
Still, the department wrote in its most recent report: "Haiti is a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation."
The majority of the victims, it said, are up to "300,000 restaveks," most of whom are "girls who are between 6 and 14 and work excessive hours, receive no schooling or payment and are often physically or sexually abused."
The police, it added, "do not pursue restavek trafficking cases because there is no statutory penalty against the practice."
Most everyone in the world is watching with horror and sympathy as Haitians pull their dead from the rubble and try to reclaim their lives. The Haitians' own shameful practices do not give others license to traffic Haiti's children. But if and when normal life returns, I hope the United States and other nations with influence in Haiti will push at last to end a barbaric practice that enslaves hundreds of thousands of children. How can they not?