Where do I even begin to explain what I’m thinking and feeling about how children are appearing in the coverage, being responded to on the ground, and what’s actually happening to kids in Haiti? When I’m feeling sour (like right now) I think, well, Haitians don’t have pets so unlike Katrina where we covered all the puppies and kittens, we’re focusing on the helpless kids. As a way of avoiding the real issue.
My main research focus is kids, so I take them very, very seriously. In a hilarious moment in class the other day, when I was pushing my students to examine why they found the idea of childhood sexuality so unthinkable, one student blurted out, “Well to me an 8-year-old child isn’t even, you know, HUMAN!” It isn’t surprising that given the very particular ways we think about children and childhood in the wealthy world that is Europe and the US (that is, the bulk of the aid-giving nations currently in Haiti) most people newly on the ground are utterly unprepared to confront, much less understand what kids lives are like there.
Haiti is a place where three year old kids routinely work as child domestic servants, doing hard physical labor from hauling water to cooking food, washing laundry, and scrubbing floors. Plenty of kids are on the streets, whether temporarily or permanently. And to ‘us’, they appear out of childhood — that is, they seem to be ‘children without childhood,’ a term I could never hate enough in a jillion years.
I’m disgusted by all the journalism I’ve been reading that emphasizes issues like ‘neglect’ and ‘abuse’ of children. No doubt, life in Haiti is friggin’ hard. And it’s hard for everybody, kids included. What often looks like abuse to us rich people is, in reality, the reality of being truly, truly poor. As most Haitians are.
The real problem is of course the poverty. Haitian parents whether rural or urban find themselves more often than not quite literally unable to feed their kids. So they have a couple of options. Keep them and watch them die before their eyes; send them to another better off family so they can eat and maybe get educated; put them in an orphanage. In case you haven’t noticed, these are all bad choices. How does one diagnose abuse or neglect under those conditions? Is it neglectful to be so poor that you and your children are starving? Is it abusive to give your child to another family because if he or she stays with you death is on the horizon?
The current brouhaha over the supposedly naive and only well-intentioned missionaries from Idaho is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve been happy to hear it called child trafficking. Many orphanages have been essentially trafficking in Haitian children for some time now. Certainly there can be no doubt at all that some substantial portion of children in Haitian orphanages aren’t what most people would consider orphans. They have families and they have one or even both parents. They are in orphanages because they are poor.
Our helping dynamic, which focuses on the child (like the cute puppy) depends upon a surgical view of the child that denies the context in which that child was produced (as poor and Haitian) and made available (for adoption). When we focus only on the questions of ‘neglect’ and ‘abuse’ but not on the loss of 80% of Haitian rice production and the concomitant doubling and tripling of the price of imported rice, we fail to pay attention to — or take responsibility for — the nightmarish conditions that force parents to give up their children in the hopes that they might simply live. And part of the horror is that the luxury of hoping that your child might live a ‘good’ life is even more remote. More likely, when children go to live with families as what are known as ‘restavek’ their treatment is really dreadful.
I’m not someone to stand up for the rights of anybody to take advantage of anyone else, but on the other hand, the harshness of much of Haitian society, and its violence, needs again to be understood in the context of poverty that is so soul-scraping that the mortifications of the flesh are a mere bagatelle. Confront the poverty. Really confront it. Then those parents suddenly might appear not as abusive but something else.
Here’s one clue — even before the earthquake, many of the Haitian orphanage sites had this really creepy message. Say you were looking at a kid and clicked on the picture to learn more. Pretty often there would be a tag line that said something like, “Yannik is not in residence at the orphanage, but should you be interested in her, more information is available.” Subtext: this child has a family, but the family is so poor they are hoping you will adopt their child so she can live to grow up, go to school, and have a life.
Why do people think they are doing a good deed if they take these parents up on this act of desperation? Fix the poverty. Let kids stay with their families. That’s got to be the commitment. Children shouldn’t be Haiti’s most valuable export.