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‘Placement’ as Trafficking

Throughout the non-Western world, family structure is often nonnuclear. Multiple generations may cohabit, children will be raised collectively, at times they will live or be ‘placed’ in locations away from their biological parents and often young and old will cycle between or through different household units according to individual or collective need. Anthropological studies of family structure and childrearing show this fluidity to be quite normal and far from damaging to a child’s development (e.g. Mann 2001). Yet the dominant discourse around child trafficking tends to construct it not only as problematic, but as inherently problematic. This is in large part because it is assumed to interrupt what is taken within the ideology of Western Childhood to be the normal, universal and invariant blueprint for a child’s healthy parental bonding and thus development, following the ethnocentric child psychology of Piaget and Bowlby that so influences international child protection (Mann 2001; Burman 2008; Howard 2008).

The pathologisation of the separation between a child and its biological parents remains significant within international child protection today. But at the heyday of anti- child trafficking in the 2000s, it was overt and very widespread indeed, particularly in West Africa, where ‘social families’ and more collective practices of childrearing are especially common (Nhlapo 1993; Hashim and Thorsen 2011). Certain UNICEF publications showed this pathologisation to in fact have pre-dated the Palermo Protocol by many years and to have structured the translation of the global language of trafficking down into the national level of the ‘placement = trafficking’ problematisation (Howard 2011; Morganti 2011).

In this, as so often, Benin was the touchstone of wider trends, with national and international civil society quick to identify trafficking as a consequence of the corrupted ‘traditional’ practice of vidomegon. Vidomegon is the Fon term denoting child circulation or placement between households. It is a very common practice across Benin and forms an established part of the childrearing canon. Yet in published and unpublished anti-trafficking material of all sorts, and in my interviews with Beninese government or civil society actors working on or in Benin, it was routinely demonised. In response to interview questions such as, ‘Where does trafficking come from?’, ‘What causes it?’ or ‘Why is it particularly pronounced in Benin?,’ I consistently received an almost rote narrative akin to that in the USAID Briefing Paper provided earlier regarding the corrupting influence of money and modernity on the once-positive practice of vidomegon.

One senior Beninese NGO figure, for example, baldly told me that ‘all children who have been placed have been trafficked,’ while his Italian colleague opined condescendingly that ‘although the practice is not dissimilar to what happened in Italy or Ireland back when people were poor, things have changed in recent years, especially because of economic factors and changing morals. Now it is very much about labour is a form of slavery.’ Her words have been echoed in myriad official Beninese child protection publications and were canonised ultimately in the country’s National Anti-Trafficking Plan of Action (POA):

“Child placement” has deviated from its original function of communal solidarity, underpins child labour, and fans the flames of domestic and international trafficking. (MFE and ILO 2008: 18)

One cannot fail to notice in all this the discursive play of the concepts of ‘modernity’ and ‘the modern.’ Implicitly, both the non-nuclear household and the mobility of children across households are set up as backward, as traditional residues that must now be left behind as the Beninese advance. Presumably, of course, their direction of travel will be westwards, towards Western society and its bourgeois model of place-static childhood. Indeed, to fail to do so would seemingly be to condemn one’s children to a fate as serious as that of being trafficked.

Importantly, it is not just the mobility aspect of placement that is demonised, but also that which pertains to labour. Placement has historically been as much a labour relationship in the non-Western world as a relationship of care—with children and young people expected to contribute economically to their host-households and to be pro-socialised in the process (Mercier 1963; Guillaume et al. 1997; Jacquemin 2006; Morganti 2011). Yet what is notable about each of the above quotations is that this economic contribution is now being discursively constructed as slavery. Placed children are ‘slaves,’ the Beninese minors found in Abeokuta or on the Etireno were ‘child slaves,’ and their living and working conditions are akin to ‘modern-day slavery.’ There is, of course, no space for nuance here, which reflects the historical abolitionist trend within anti- child labour activism that has always constructed child work as an inhuman practice commoditising the one sacred commodity—the child—that should never have tangible economic value. Again, we are in the domain of the ideology of Western Childhood, which posits deviance from its model as inherently problematic. Without a doubt, the discourses deriving from this are both paternalistic and racist. They echo colonial discourses of ‘savage peoples’, which were so important in sustaining the legitimacy of the colonial enterprise. And in this post-colonial epoch, they have sustained the legitimacy of disciplinary anti-trafficking.

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