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Girls, Boys, and Transience: Issues of Gender and Generation

The growing number of transient children—refugee, internally displaced, stateless, trafficked, immigrant, and street youth—reflects worldwide political, social, and geoenvironmental crises. Despite the fact that “transience” is usually characterized by a fleeting moment (i.e., an event of short duration) for many forced migrants, especially children languishing in refugee camps, detention centers, or waiting zones, their liminal state takes on a new quality of being “a ‘frozen transience,’ an ongoing, lasting state of temporary-ness, a duration patched together of moments none of which is lived through as an element of, let alone, a contribution to, perpetuity” (Bauman 2002, 114-15). Children and youth in refugee camps “learn to live or rather survive [(sur)vivre] from day to day in the immediacy of the moment, bathing in the ... despair brewing inside the walls” (Wacquant 2001, cited in Bauman 2007).

This protracted transience prevents many forced migrant children from growing roots and having a sense of belonging. As a case in point, Loren Landau (2006) examines how, in urban settings of South Africa, local community members and migrants have developed competing idioms for relating to one another and the space they share. For South Africans, this often means appealing to a nativist idiom that locates commonality amid an allochthonous (not indigenous) citizenry while at the same time prohibiting migrants from calling South African cities and neighborhoods their own. Refugees and migrants counter this with an idiom of permanent transit, a way of positioning themselves as outsiders lodged in a superior and unrooted state. For the refugees and migrants permanently passing through the city in Landau’s study, it is an idiom of a denationalized “nowhereville.”

Temporal notions of “being” and “becoming” are intrinsic to the experience of childhood (Uprichard 2008), not just for those displaced girls and boys for whom transience is also geographically marked. Violent displacement often involves children and their families living in refugee camps or on the edge of urban slums for many years, or even decades. Here the “deserving poor” are faced with the gendering effects of humanitarian assistance, as they exist in a state of prolonged suspension. Such protracted displacement affects females and males, old, and young in different ways, and dramatically changes their lives (Grabska 2014).

Gender and generation are, in effect, further dimensions of forced migration that have both been largely overlooked in academic writings, especially in policy and programming. Earlier focus on gender in refugee experiences was mainly concerned with experiences of females, usually adult women, without greater analysis of the relational aspects of gender and the influence of gender norms, institutions, and ideologies on the shifting position of women and men and girls and boys within a society. There is a need to go beyond the simplified view of women and girls merely as victims of wars and displacement. As some of the chapters in this book illustrate (see chapters “Refugee Girls and Boys and the Dilemmas of (Un) Sustainable Return to South Sudan”, “Finding Better Ways to Support Resettled Refugee Families Dealing with Intergenerational Conflict”, and “Unaccompanied Young Asylum-Seekers Stuck in Transit in Indonesia: Intimate Relationships and Resilience”), being “in-flux” between war, prolonged displacement (sometimes for decades), belonging, not belonging, and returning to a supposed “home” profoundly affects both the lives of children and youth and the practice and negotiation of gender relations within and across generations. Given the very high proportion of girls and boys among the displaced populations worldwide, and the particular challenges and opportunities they must confront, their experiences, needs, and aspirations must be investigated and factored into relevant policy and practice.

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