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E. Benjamin Skinner
For Bill Clinton, it was a characteristically unscripted moment during an uncharacteristically low-profile press conference.
On June 15, Clinton sat next to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and decried the plight of child domestic slaves in Haiti, a country to which the former president had just agreed to serve as UN Special Envoy.
Known as restavèks, a Creole euphemism meaning “stay-withs,” the children are lured from desperately impoverished rural parents with the promise of a better life. Instead, most endure unpaid household labor, compelled through unchecked violence. UN bureaucrats typically tiptoe around words like “slavery,” but Clinton didn’t hold back: “I’m sad to say we’ve even had examples of restavèk children that have been found in Haitian communities in the United States.”
Estimates for the total number of restavèks range around 300,000: a staggering demographic, but just a sliver of those forced to work under threat of violence worldwide. The global slave population may reach 27 million. The vast majority labor in some form of hereditary debt bondage on the Asian subcontinent; criminals traffic hundreds of thousands across international borders annually. The Justice Department estimates that, on average, a person becomes a slave on U.S. soil every half hour.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/07/13/art.haiti.street.jpg caption="A 2006 picture of poor housing conditions in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere."]
Four years ago, and less than five hours from the UN conference room where Clinton and Ban sat, I haggled with a trafficker to buy one of those slaves, a 12-year-old girl. In broad daylight on a street in Port-au-Prince, the trafficker leaned in: “This is a rather delicate question. Is this someone you want as just a worker? Or also someone who will be a ‘partner.’ You understand what I mean? Or is it someone you just really want to work?” The negotiated price for this domestic and sexual slave: $50.
Paying for human life is unconscionable, and injecting hard currency into an exchange that is typically bartered would give rise to a trade in misery. In the last six years, I have witnessed negotiations for the sale of slaves on four continents, in underground brothels, in front line war zones, on suburban streets.
I spoke with dozens of slaves, traffickers, survivors and abolitionists. I recorded minute details of the trade, and allowed slaves to bear witness through me. I cajoled local police officials to do the right thing and prosecute traffickers, and aided the courageous few who actually did. But I never paid for human life: I was under no illusions that merely buying the freedom of a slave would render him or her free.
The real work of global abolition, a pledge written in the blood of our ancestors, is a complex struggle. It requires not only freeing slaves, but enabling their long-term recovery. It also involves preventing others from entering bondage by arresting traffickers and reducing vulnerabilities among communities that traffickers target.
This week, Clinton’s friends put their money where his mouth is. The Clinton Global Initiative paired Pheonix real estate investor Gil Gillenwater with Free The Slaves, an extraordinarily effective organization that works with local abolitionists in places like rural Haiti to systematically eradicate slavery. Gillenwater committed $54,510 to entirely fund the emancipation and recovery of a north Indian village called Kukraouthi. His commitment will mean freedom for some 20 families that were bonded for generations in farms and carpet looms.
You don’t have to be a millionaire or a former president to be an effective abolitionist. On average, worldwide, Free the Slaves’ programs require an investment of just $400 to bring a slave to the point of self reliance. Please learn more at www.freetheslaves.net.
Editor's Note: E. Benjamin Skinner is the author of A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery (Free Press, 2008), which this week was awarded the 2009 Dayton Literary Peace Price for nonfiction.
Program Note: To learn more about restavèks and the organizations that are working to end this ‘modern day slavery” in Haiti, visit our Impact Your World page.
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