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Are we really saving the children?

BTS editors introduce their issue on 'generations' by arguing that contemporary child savers often damage the children they seek to save because they operate under severely flawed assumptions.

Truong Huu Hung for the ILO/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Few crimes elicit collective condemnation more quickly than those involving children: ‘Child labour’, ‘child trafficking’, ‘child slavery’. These all apparently represent the ‘worst of the worst’, and in each case the prefix ‘child’ renders the bad awful. This is the power of the concept ‘childhood’. It is reflected in the assumed and unquestioned ‘rightness’ of campaigns to ‘abolish child labour’ or to ‘end child slavery’. Everyone is on board. From media celebrities and abolitionist activists to morally questionable governments and powerful international agencies, all claim to know what childhood ‘is’ and thus what needs to be done to protect it.

This is highly problematic for at least two reasons. First, the premises, rationales, and underlying concepts powering contemporary child savers are seriously shaky. Indeed, they are quite often narrow, ethnocentric and highly particular. Second, the actions and interventions of these same child savers can be extremely damaging to the very children and young people they seek to support.

The dominant understanding of childhood operating in child rights and abolitionist circles is western, (neo)liberal and romantic. It constructs under-18s as inherently vulnerable and unable to exercise meaningful agency, demanding that they spend their time exclusively on play, rest, and school in order to prepare themselves for adult life in the market economy. This conception reduces human maturation to a factor of biology. It abstracts itself from its social, cultural, historic and political-economic contexts to position its version as the universal norm of childhood from which all others deviate.

This unquestioned normativity disrespects the diversity of possible childhoods and ignores the overwhelming body of scholarship discrediting calendar age as the basis for defining a child’s best interests. Worse still, ‘pathologising’ different types of childhood and letting the diagnoses that result affect policy has serious consequences for children and their communities. Children, childhoods and family models that fail to correspond to the hegemonic norm are often deemed inappropriate or ‘anti-developmental’. This sees social practices which are not harmful—such as using puberty rites or ‘social age’ to delineate the boundary between adulthood and childhood—demonised or policed out of existence.

The same is true for child or youth work and mobility. Because under-18s are assumed to be unwilling or unable to make the decision to migrate, work or seek opportunities in spheres which are regarded as the preserve of adults, children who do work or migrate are typically misclassified as ‘slaves’ or ‘victims of trafficking’. Policy-makers then seek to ‘protect’ them through ‘rescue’, denying them the right to work or move or sending them home if they’ve done either. Given that so many young people work or move out of necessity this is, unsurprisingly, often disastrous for the children involved.

This points to a major failing on the part of the child saving community: it is deeply a-political. It rarely asks why, almost inevitably targeting symptoms instead of their underlying causes. Children’s work in agriculture, mining or even prostitution reflects the wider destitution of their home communities, and in turn the unjust, global, political-economic framework that perpetuates this destitution. Is anybody but the global elite served by an analysis that abstracts children-to-be-saved from the immiserated context that they inhabit or the causal dynamics conditioning that context? Surely, we say, there is not.

The issue

Over the coming weeks a number of leading voices in the fields of childhood, youth and rights expand on these critiques. Our contributions will hold to account a social force that rarely faces the public scrutiny its actions deserve, and our authors will offer advice for how things might be done differently.

We begin by underlining that childhood is a social construct. It varies with time and place, and thus is far from universal. Hugh Cunningham makes this point emphatically with his examination of the influence of the Romantic movement on the emergence of the hegemonic western model. He examines historical efforts to regulate or ban children’s labour and concludes that they failed in large part because they were unable to situate children’s work within its socio-economic context. This conclusion is echoed in more contemporary pieces from Bill Myers, Roy Huijsmans, Teena Orchard and Amanda Berlan. Each makes the case that context matters and that blanket pathologisation can only make things worse.

Week two features contributions from authors including Kristen Cheney, Iman Hashim, Karin Heissler, Dorte Thorsen, Vivienne Cree and Jason Hart. These extend the critique of mainstream child protection efforts. For their part, Heissler, Hashim and Thorsen argue that preventing trafficking by impeding mobility is as counter-productive and reductive as stopping exploitation by banning work. Cree and Cheney argue that more sensible protection efforts are hampered by a pathology on the part of abolitionist child savers themselves, while Hart lambasts the futility of protection without politics.

Finally, in week three, we offer ‘constructive feedback’ in an attempt to push things forward. Our contributors for this week are all both scholars and ‘practitioners’, walking the fine line between analysing the child protection field and working as part of it. They thus possess a unique insight into what is done and what could be done better. Michael Bourdillon, Jo Boyden, Neil Howard, Mike Dottridge and Samuel Okyere all agree that there is a need for an approach to securing child and youth welfare that is more nuanced, context specific, non-dogmatic and politically engaged. Contrary to received ideas, this means allowing rather than preventing work, regulating rather than restricting mobility. It also means getting political.

About the authors

Sam Okyere is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Nottingham. He is primarily interested in sociological, anthropological and policy analysis of childhood, child rights, human rights, social justice, (in)equality, globalisation, migration, racism and identity.

Neil Howard is an academic activist based at the Institute of Development Policy and Management at the University of Antwerp. His research focuses on unfree labour, and on the workings of the policy establishment as it seeks to respond. Follow him on twitter @NeilPHoward.


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