Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Saving the ‘girl child’: the politics of sexual purity and national honour

Representations of girls often place a premium on sexual purity and sexual violation, and nation-states are either condemned or praised depending on how they protect ‘vulnerable’ girls.

Kelli Lyon Johnson
13 May 2016

A young girl selling toys in Vietnam. guru krishnan/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc)

In 1995, the United Nations Conference on Women’s Beijing Platform for Action identified ‘the girl child’ as one of its twelve ‘critical areas for concern’. In the two decades that have followed, vulnerable girls have come to be almost universally regarded as key symbols of vulnerability, victimisation, exploitation, and exclusion. Such portrayals have undoubtedly helped to generate popular and political concern, but these concerns have too often been based on models of the ‘innocence’ of childhood and girlhood, together with an obsessive concern with sexual purity and sexual violation. As we shall see, this obsession with sexual purity tends to result in a limited diagnosis that sidelines the analysis of larger patterns of culpability and complicity. This limitation has, in turn, meant that efforts to protect the ‘girl child’ have too often ended up upholding a vision of the world in which ‘the west’ acquires legitimacy via ritualised condemnations of ‘the rest’.

There is no question that girls require support from activists and governments around the world. Many are ‘missing’ – unregistered at birth or, more often, unborn because of selective abortion. They are more likely than boys to die in infancy, early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence because of malnutrition, lack of medical care, early childbearing, and domestic and sexual violence. Their rights are not explicitly accounted for in either the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women or the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). In the recently released UN Sustainable Development Goals, girls are mentioned only as part of the phrases ‘women and girls’ or ‘girls and boys’, with the exception of a single reference to adolescent girls’ nutrition as part of nutrition and pregnancy.

The key sticking point is, therefore, not whether or not girls require support. The issue, instead, is which forms this support takes, and how and to what ends concerns about the ‘girl child’ have been mobilised. At this juncture, it is essential to keep in mind that the all of the problems above – and many more – need to be regarded as symptoms or expressions of underlying problems concerning gender and sexuality, rather than as isolated and individual issues. But while the Beijing Platform’s ‘girl child diagnosis’ was undertaken, in part, to apply and perhaps extend the recently and widely ratified CRC specifically to girls, it suggests a pathology. That pathology has emerged over time as a moral failing of states based not on the human rights demands of the Beijing Platform or the CRC but of the sexual purity of their girl children, specifically those in marriage, war, and prostitution. While the ‘girl child’ is a figure of hope – the child bride, the child soldier, and the child prostitute are corruptions of that hope, and of girlhood itself.

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Contemporary political activism is frequently geared towards efforts to name and shame nations that ‘fail’ to support and protect ‘their’ girls. This approach emerges clearly in the title of Human Rights Watch’s 2011 report ‘How Come You Allow Little Girls to Get Married?’ Child Marriage in Yemen. Human Rights Watch uses this question, excerpted from a girl’s story in the report, to address and indict the government of Yemen.

Similarly, Plan International opened its first State of the World’s Girls report in 2007 with an excerpt from a girl’s story, attributed to “Girl, 15, Turkey”. This common technique in human rights reporting collapses or elides three of her identities: gender, age, and nationality, and it is around this trio of identities that human rights reports create a moral community that includes and excludes nations – their governments, citizens, and residents – based on the political, cultural, and social status and experiences of girls.

This rhetoric of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ nations tends to reinforce inequalities between countries in the global north and the global south. Differences in income, education, history, and health are effectively translated into differences of moral worth. The ‘state’ of the world’s girls in this way rests, in fact, on the state. When a nation is named as unable to protect its girl children from marriage, war, and/or prostitution, the underlying claim is that they are unwilling to protect them from these harms. This is portrayed in human rights terms as a moral failure and worthy of shame. This theme applies to portrayals of girls in marriage, girls in war, and girls in prostitution.

‘Child brides,’ ‘girl soldiers,’ and ‘child prostitutes’

In the last ten years, human rights NGOs have sought to make child marriage a pillar of their work in developing nations. But in so doing, these developing nations are often pathologised for the treatment of their girl children – in this case, as wives – with little attention paid to the role of poverty and development and with frequent condemnation of ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’. The immorality of child marriage rests almost entirely on girls’ sexual innocence, understood to be a ‘natural’ part of childhood.

We also see the child bride deployed as a device of foreign policy strategies. Writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, Rachel Vogelstein uses the figure of the child bride to point out the ways that her salvation can serve US political interests. “Child marriage,” she writes, “is not simply a human rights violation. It is also a threat to the prosperity and stability of countries in which it is prevalent and undermines US development and foreign policy priorities”. In addition, “[i]ts effects are harmful not only to girls, but also to families, communities, and economies – and to US interests – around the globe”. The child bride here appears as an object of international relations, rather than as a human. None of this is to say that forced marriage is acceptable in the name of empowering girls, but we need to recognise that a singular focus on sexual purity not only fails to empower girls, but also dehumanises them to the extent that they are unable to participate meaningfully in claiming their own rights.


bixentro/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by)

Similarly, the factor most frequently lamented about a girl child soldier’s experiences is her sexual violation; the label sex slave appears throughout the media in describing girls identified as “wives” (sometimes called “bush wives”) by adult male soldiers. We can see this clearly in coverage of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, among other places. Again, it is the sexual dimension of their experience on which the reports centre. Focusing on her sexual violation rather than the economic and political instability that leads to girls’ participation in those wars ignores the fact that some girls do, indeed, volunteer for war (like boys) as a survival strategy or, even, to avenge family deaths.

But probably no other figure can elicit moral anxieties as strongly as girls who have been sexually exploited in prostitution. Girls – as child prostitutes – have emerged as the primary moral problem to be solved. One remarkable aspect of the figure of the child prostitute is that the most visible document reporting on nations’ protection of her comes not from a human rights organisation but from the US State Department. In the fight against human trafficking, the US government has positioned itself as the leader of the global moral community, a role that it both creates and enforces through the US Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Reports. The excessive, almost zealous focus on girls in prostitution around the world in these reports serves as an example of the kind of remonstration directed at countries in the global south not for structural problems like poverty and political instability – to which the US has contributed in many cases – but for immorality.

Human rights for girls

The figure of the violated girl child functions as a shaming device that is both gendered and sexualised in reports about trafficking, slavery, and human rights. Although the organisations researching and reporting on child brides, girl child soldiers, and girls trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation declare that their intent is to empower girls as a prevention strategy, their use of the girl victim ultimately disempowers. Reports must be framed through human rights, using both concepts and language from human rights instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the CRC, and then explicitly applied to girls. At the same time, structural inequalities must be the focus of these reports with strategies specifically, and concretely, relevant to girls. Not least, the moral tone and content must be carefully avoided, both relating to the girls included in the reports and the countries in which they reside or from which they come.

Ultimately, this hyper-focus on girls’ sexual purity may be one of the impediments to moving from a rhetorical construction of the victimised girl child in need of salvation to a framework in which girls define themselves and claim their own rights. Moving from the ‘girl child diagnosis’ of the Beijing Platform to girls’ rights will require a shift away from the sexually pure girl child as a mechanism for national salvation and global belonging toward girls who possess and experience the full range of human rights.

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