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In Haiti, An 'American Idol'-Style Contest About Child Slavery

Haiti's got talent.

Tamarre Joseph paces the stage, her sleek, short blue dress hugging her pencil-thin frame. She works the hometown crowd, rapping "Nap rive peyi san restavek."

The thousands in the packed stadium jump and sing along. An entire section of men take off their shirts and wave them overhead.

A rain cloud hangs ominously over the national soccer stadium in downtown Port-au-Prince, blocking the view of the mountains beyond. At one end of the stadium sits a stage with the words "Chante Pou Libete" above their English translation: "Songs for Freedom."

"Nap rive peyi san restavek."

We will be a country without restaveks.

This concert, free to the public, was billed as a way to speak about the unspoken: Haiti's deplorably large population of restaveks — child slaves.

It's certainly unusual to have an American Idol-style competition for songs about slavery. And it's definitely ironic that this event is taking place in the home of the world's only successful slave revolt.

The 2013 Global Slavery Index ranks Haiti second in the world for modern slavery, with an estimated 200,000 to 220,000 slaves. Only Mauritania is worse. While that number includes adults, the vast majority are minors. Restavek roughly translates to "stay with" in Creole ("avec" is French for with). Often, families from the countryside send young children to live with wealthier families in Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital. In exchange for a promised better life and education, the child will contribute to household chores like cooking, washing clothes and fetching water.

In thousands of cases, children are forced into servitude: They take on most, if not all, of the household work, they're beaten and sexually assaulted, they never get the education they hoped to earn.

In June, Haiti's parliament passed a bill outlawing human trafficking, but the country remains on a U.S. government trafficking watch list because of concerns over whether Haiti will implement the new rules. Advocates worry about enforcement, in part, because of the magnitude of the problem.

"This problem affects millions of people throughout Haiti, and it touches on several issues: gender inequality, illiteracy, overpopulation," says Joan Conn, executive director of the nonprofit Restavek Freedom Foundation.

Conn's organization seeks to bring a better life to these children. Her organization pays for tuition, uniforms and books for 800 children now living as restaveks and assigns a caseworker to each child. Many of the children were reported to the organization by concerned neighbors.

The foundation also sponsored Saturday's music contest.

Haiti has 10 departments — the equivalent of states. Each held its own semifinal and sent a winner to compete in Port-au-Prince, with one exception. The more populous West Department had two entrants.

Underneath the stadium, in a makeshift dressing room, the 11 contestants and their backup bands take turns snapping photos and sitting in front of the lone industrial fan. Musicians dab sweat from their foreheads, pull stray threads from their suits and munch on Pringles, all the while sizing up the competition.

"They see me and they know I'll win," asserts Nadine Moncher, who won the preliminary contest in the Nippes Department with a song called "Stand Up for the Restavek."

Some contestants wrote from the perspective of a restavek; others incorporated dance into their performance, with young children playing the part of restaveks.

"Some of the contestants focused too much on the show," says event judge and music critic Myria Charles. "Most important were the words."

Borrowing from beauty pageants, the two emcees asked questions of the performers: What is the role of parents in ending restavek? What is the role of education in ending restavek? Can the Catholic and Protestant churches do more to end restavek?

Marthe Yoldie Saimphort, donning tattered clothes that a child slave might wear, belted cries for freedom in her forceful song "Mande Pou Libete." The rapt crowd grew even more excited with her answer to her question from the emcees.

"People have too many children in Haiti. That's the No. 1 problem," she says, then turns to the audience and its thunderous cheering. "Parents can't afford all the children."

None of the contestants was a restavek. They'd seen them in their hometowns, but few had ever spoken with them.

"I see them in my neighborhood and at church, and I know if I didn't have a mother and father I could be one, too," Saimphort says.

"I saw them growing up, but I didn't know them too well," concedes Abdias Noncent.

"My mother was a restavek, so I'm singing for her," says Edriss Neptune, a tall singer with a cropped beard. His song demands that families take the bucket out of a restavek's hands and replace it with a pencil.

In Port-au-Prince, Tamarre Joseph says, "you know who they are because they stay up later and wake up earlier" than other children.

All 11 contestants perform and answer questions. Then the judges retreat to a dimly lit room underneath the stadium. One light barely illuminates the coffee table they sit at. Curtains block the only window. Four armed members of the Haitian National Police protect the room. No one explains why protection is necessary.

After 45 minutes, the judges emerge from their cavern and hand the envelope to the emcee. As a drizzle begins, the excitable but dwindling crowd starts to chant "Rain! Rain! Rain!"

The top three contestants win cash prizes, provided by the Restavek Freedom Foundation. Third place is about $1,000, second place double that, and the grand prize winner about $4,000. In a country where 80 percent of people live on $2 a day, these are serious stakes.

Third place goes to one of the two Port-au-Prince contestants: Gitanie Guerrier. Sporting a bright pink princess dress, she smiles as a volunteer accidentally slips the second-place medal around her neck.

Runner-up Hedson Lamour does not hide his disappointment. In his white tuxedo and tails, he looks dejectedly at the ground, ignoring his oversize check. Hours before, he was prancing around the stage, singing about a caring onlooker who stopped the beating of a restavek.

To most in the audience, the top prize was a foregone conclusion.

Marthe Yoldie Saimphort sealed the win early in the evening with her confident answers and thoughtful performance. When she exited the stage after her song, police in fatigues rushed to snap photos. Overwhelmed, she cried.

For the second time this evening, she cries — this time, wearing a green gown and holding a check for $4,000.

"Restaveks live in fear. They want to run away, but they know they can't," Saimphort says. "People need to know they can help."

Later this year, she'll have the chance to spread the word farther, when the Restavek Freedom Foundation flies her to the United States to record an album.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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