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Problem Parents

Intricately related to this ethnocentric notion of ‘placement corrupted’ is the discursive caricature of ‘the problem parent,’ which features across a wide range of international anti- child trafficking literature. This caricature is far from restricted to Benin, or even to West Africa. UNICEF includes fostering responsibility amongst parents as a pillar of its overall child protection strategy, while Nicolas Kristoff’s (in)famous New York Times reporting on child trafficking in South-East Asia has long featured a tone of smug disbelief that parents would seemingly ‘sell’ their children into sexual servitude.4

In my examination of this figure of the problem parent, three central tropes recur with most frequency. These are ignorance, irresponsibility and wanton reproduction. In the case of ignorance, it is precisely the fact that parents continue to place their offspring (or allow them to migrate into slavery), either with extended family members or with third parties whose responsibility to the child is more akin to that of an employer than a guardian, that is said to encapsulate their naivety. When I spoke to him in Cotonou, Dibi was a senior state official overseeing the country’s antitrafficking operations.5 In his view, ‘to eradicate child trafficking, we need firstly to show parents that sending their children away will not make them or their children rich. Parents think that departure leads to wealth, but it doesn’t.’ Such views were common. In a major child protection workshop I attended in 2010, the opening address held that ‘placement is a problem, because the best protection for a child is to be at home with his family. We need to prevent parents from letting their children go.’

The assumption that parents are good-willing but ingenuous is not matched across the discursive board. Often it is simple parental ‘irresponsibility,’ ‘neglect’ or ‘negligence’ that is cited as the cause of a child’s placement cum trafficking. In Benin’s POA, for example, we read that ‘weak engagement on the part of parents and communities’ and ‘the breakdown of traditional values’ are two of the most important factors explaining the country’s ongoing trafficking problem (MFE and ILO 2008: 64). Even more startlingly, in a study financed by UNICEF and conducted for the Family Ministry, readers are informed that parents need to learn that ‘they must participate in the fight against poverty.. .prioritise appropriately... and share food resources’ (MFPSS and UNICEF 2006: 15)!

The paternalistic idea that parents do not know how to prioritise appropriately is far from anomalous. Indeed, it follows almost axiomatically from parents’ perceived deviance from (Western) child protection norms. A Beninese child protection officer I interviewed in the Zou departement took this perspective to its extreme, blaming trafficking on parents simply not wanting to work. The key refrain I heard from him and others was ‘le gain facil’, which can be loosely translated as ‘easy money.’ Irresponsible parents are after easy money, it seems, which is why they either fail to work hard enough, let their children work or allow or encourage migration.

Finally, and closely related to this trope, is the notion that parents (and particularly rural parents) cause trouble for themselves and their young by consistently and wantonly reproducing. The logic here is that thoughtlessly having children impoverishes families to the point of parents having to place or traffic their own offspring. Again, such thinking is far from isolated and runs all the way to the upper echelons of policy-making. Ayala, for instance, was a Beninese government minister at the time of the Etireno, and she cited large family size as her major anti-trafficking bugbear. Lower down the chain, a local child protection officer I interviewed went even further, telling me that some parents actually have children only to traffic them!

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