Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Moving Children in Haiti: Some Hypotheses on Kinship, Labor, and Personhood in the Haitian Context

Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Moving Children in Haiti: Some Hypotheses on Kinship, Labor, and Personhood in the Haitian Context

Article excerpt

As many have noted, Haiti is a nation where implementing visions of best practice in education is incredibly difficult. The country faces pervasive poverty, limited access to schooling, little infrastructure development, dysfunctional welfare systems, and extreme social inequality. If all of these issues were salient before the earthquake, they have become even more pressing in its aftermath. In a report on the progress one year after the quake, UNICEF (2011) was cautiously hopeful, but at the same time described Haiti as a nation that will require a great deal of intervention before it becomes a place "fit for children" (p. 25). Nonetheless, postearthquake Haiti has seen a great effort on the part of humanitarian agencies to implement prescribed international conventions. A major part of these efforts has focused on the creation of registries to identify and track lost children and reunite them with their surviving relatives, prioritizing the goal of family reunification premised on the assumption that families are the best protective environments for children. Commenting on the one -year progress of post-disaster family tracing and reunification efforts, UNICEF somewhat ruefully observed that 40% of the children registered so far had been separated before the quake, highlighting just how "deepseated the child protection challenges are" that the country currently faces (p. 12).

These concerns - while well-intentioned - fail to consider the local circumstances that shape Haitian childhood. In particular, they fail to take into account the local contexts that govern the lives oïrestavèk^ those children who leave their biological parents to live in a different household as domestic servants. As I have discussed previously (Hoffman 2010, 2011), research on restavèk is an exceedingly difficult undertaking, as scholarship is necessarily positioned within - and sometimes against - misleading representations that are powerfully shaped by politics, advocacy, and charity.

Restavèk are often portrayed as among the most vulnerable children in Haiti, and particularly so since the earthquake. At the same time, as a construct enmeshed in international social discourse, humanitarian aid, and development, the "vulnerable child" reflects on a larger politics of culture that positions the Haitian nation, like the child, as being in need of "saving" (Hoffman, 2011; see also James, 2004). This salvine discourse builds on representations of Haitian culture and society as fundamentally deficient, corrupt, anti-democratic, authoritarian, and violent. While poor infrastructure development, poverty, economic need, and political insecurity are sometimes a part of this picture, the structural narrative is often downplayed in favor of negative cultural characterizations, particularly when it comes to the consideration of Haitian childrearing practices and education.

The cultural and ethical questions that international discourse, humanitarian aid, and development work raise are undeniably significant. However, before these questions can be answered, scholars must have a fuller conception oï restavèk practice and the local contexts that create and sustain childhood mobility in Haiti. This article argues that the restavèk system cannot be understood apart from its links to Haitian notions of childhood, kinship, learning, and personhood, and that in the absence of careful cultural and social contextualization it is often sensationalized in ways that are not conducive to a better and broader view of social transformation in Haiti. Only after this careful social contextualization can we generate more informed and enlightened approaches toward generating solutions to the problems that Haitian children face.


In recent years, the anthropology of childhood has generated a rich literature on the place of labor in childhood that has successfully challenged many of the stereotypes surrounding this topic, especially notions that labor victimizes children, leaves them with "no childhood," harms their health and development, and represents the loss of critical periods of development that should be devoted to socialization and learning. …

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