There is an estimated 27 million people in the world who are being held in some form of slavery today. They are not concentrated in one country or region, but are interspersed among us. Slavery is illegal everywhere, but it happens nearly everywhere.
When I think about slavery, I think about slave ships, cotton plantations, shackles and whips. This imagery is one of a bygone era, and is telling of how hard it is for me to imagine slavery in the modern world. In fact it is just natural for us to dismiss this phenomenon as a thing of the past, and in doing so, turn a blind eye to the plight of the 27 million entrapped.
You can find them in brothels, factories, mines, farm fields, restaurants, construction sites and private homes. The grounds behind their enslavement are as diverse as they themselves are. Sometimes it is a byproduct of poverty – a decision made under difficult circumstances; sometimes the reason has its roots entrenched in the culture of the place; and other times it as simple as the exploitation of a vulnerable demographic. Whatever the cause is, wherever slavery exists and whoever is enslaved: we must first acknowledge their existence and understand the circumstances behind their enslavement before we can dream of a slave-free world.
Two countries I have been to and that are really close to my heart provide us with two very distinct examples of modern-day slavery – Haiti and India. Haiti has the highest number of slaves as a percentage of its population (3.1%), whereas India has the largest slave population in the world (~18 million).
It was in September 2010, on the Haitian island of La Gonâve that I first got a glimpse of slavery. I didn’t recognize it was when I saw it; a little girl with disheveled hair, squatting on the dirt floor outside, washing dishes. Her smile as big as the other kids who were playing outside, it was easy to overlook the bondage. Maybe this was the only life she has ever known. She was there, yet not – a harsh reality, a victim of society, silent in solitude, invisible. A restavek.
Restavek is a Kreyol word, with roots in French (reste avec), which literally means “stay with.” A restavek is a child sent to “stay with” another family. The child’s family has to make the decision to send him/her away since it does not have the resources to support the child. The child stays with the host family with the understanding that he/she will help around the house in exchange for food and shelter. The Restavek system has been around in Haiti for centuries, and has seen hundreds of thousands of children being sent away for the hope of a better life, only to serve a life of serfdom.
A restavek child is subjected to a severe workload and oftentimes fatal abuse. He/she is not treated as an equal in the host family, is almost never sent to school and is made to quickly lose all hope for a better life. This is not child labor, it is slavery – the Restavek system does not only steal the child’s innocence and playtime, but it robes him/her of free will.
This is a very complicated form of slavery that has been in place for generations. It is a common cultural practice and it is assumed that one in three households in Port-au-Prince has a restavek in their home. It is easy to hold the host parents culpable or to blame the hardship under which the children grow up in. But these families are simply doing what all of us around the world do – adopting culturally accepted practices from ancestors, without questioning the correctness or relevance of the act.
We meet community leaders, pastors, and government officials who have a restavek in their home – or as they put it “I don’t have a restavek, but my wife does.” Brides ask for a “ti moun”, a little person, for a wedding present. This practice, while not applauded, is common and accepted. It is easy to give a child away. It is easy to have a child slave in Haiti. And it will continue to be easy, unless people are shown a new way.
Changing a cultural practice is complicated and requires a simultaneous effort from everyone in society. One cannot just go house to house freeing the restavek children. We need to understand how they got there in the first place, and how to get them out and ensure that they are not subjected to such treatment again. A holistic approach needs to be taken in educating parents, raising awareness at every level, encouraging open discourse on this matter and ensuring that everyone is availed basic human rights.
I have only recently come to know of slavery in the Indian Subcontinent, a fact that appalls me as I have lived in this region for the larger part of my life. While volunteering for the nonprofit organization, Free the Slaves, I got the chance to look at results of surveys conducted by the organization in regions where slavery is prevalent. Free the Slave’s method of intervention is a long process and seeks to end slavery in a sustainable manner. It seeks to educate the villagers about their rights, informs the enforcement authorities of any violation of law, provides schooling for the children and also creates opportunities so that the families can pull themselves out of poverty.
There are around 18 million people in India who in some way or the other are enslaved. In spite of the shear immensity of that number, the enslaved represent only a tiny fraction of the population of India. Unlike Haiti where the Restavek system is a part of the culture, slavery in India is well hidden. It is a phenomenon that remains unknown to most Indians and gets a blind eye from the Indian government. India is really proud in its claim of being the biggest republic and a long-standing defender of human rights. Indeed slavery is outlawed in India, and the constitution grants equal rights to all human beings. Ranking at number 95 in Transparency International’s Worldwide Corruption Perceptions Rankings, means that most laws protecting minorities, are not enforced by the administration. India is also a country with a vast income disparity, something that gives rise to the violation of human rights and loss of human dignity.
Unlike the case in Haiti, where children are inducted into slavery due to economic reasons and the hope of a better life, most of the slavery in India is debt-induced. The slaves are not only children but families and often times entire villages. Most of these families belong to a lower caste (Scheduled caste/Harijans/Backward caste) or other religious minority groups. These groups have been historically marginalized and lack the education or professional skills to overcome the abject poverty they were born in. Most live in extremely rural areas where the only governing body is a village council. Like most of India, their main source of livelihood is agriculture, although they do not own their own land. The landowners, who are also the loan sharks, pay them a miniscule amount of money for their labor. The women, who are paid less than the men, usually get only a small ration of food for their labor. No one is spared by this system, with children as young as five having to pick up farming tools instead of books every morning. At the end of the day, they have little left over to save. The children grow up malnourished, and when sickness befalls the family, it has little choice but to take out a loan from their landlord. The landlord gladly hands out money, knowing that this will only lengthen the period of serfdom for the family. The loans accrue at exorbitant interest rates, and the family falls deeper into debt. Children inherit the debt accumulated by their parents, never experiencing a life without bondage. The cycle continues – permeating the lives of generations of unfortunate villagers.
How you can help
Slavery has existed since the very dawn of civilization. The process of emancipation is long, but its need is crucial to the upholding of human dignity. Today, we have a real chance to end slavery once and for all. The freedom of every living soul on this planet can be attributed to the struggle of their forefathers. Let us take a stance today for the freedom of all human beings on this planet.
The greatest thing you can do to help, is to create awareness of this subject. Talk to your friends and family, post something on Facebook, forward this link, etc.