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Non-Western Childhood(s), Work and Mobility

We have already seen that the normative assumptions permeating institutional anti-trafficking literature rely heavily on the ideology of Western Childhood. This constructs children in generic and biologically preset terms, assuming that all have the same needs and that those can best be met through the caregiving and socialisation practices predominant in white middle-class Europe and North America. These practices centre on children living in stable nuclear family units made up of them and their biological parents, spending most of their time between home and school, and avoiding nearly all paid work. Their strength ensures that alternatives—especially pertaining to work, family structure and mobility—are often pathologised as deviant, deficient and anti-developmental. Yet this pathologising is highly problematic, since childhood, like all concepts, is a social rather than a natural construct, relying for its meaning on the social, cultural, political, economic and ecological environment in which it takes form and is lived out. The same is true for sister concepts such as family, community, care, development and growth. What works and is normal in one setting may be abnormal, unjust or even abusive in another.

In many non-Western contexts, and in societies where capitalism is less developed and so bourgeois family and identity structures are less evolved, childhood, child development and family organisation are all very different to what predominates in the West. Typically, the wider collective or extended family will be more important than the nuclear or immediate family. Children will thus be raised to see themselves as part of that larger collective and will be socialised to derive their identity from it. Take, for example, West Africa. The region has long been noted for its socio-centric communalism. Although, in the urban centres and amongst middle classes, families of the Western nuclear variety are increasingly common, usually family is defined in broader, more inclusive terms than those of the individual nuclear unit. Multiple generations often cohabit, biological and non-biological relatives live under the same roof and resources are shared more widely across different households. As a result, caregiving and childrearing practices are more communal, with what Nhlapo describes as ‘social parenthood’ common across the region (1993: 37). Children receive instruction from any social senior, and many will be ‘fostered’ or ‘placed’ in households other than those of their genetic parents.1 Far from abusive or neglectful in the way that the anti-trafficking discourse characterises it, this represents the very articulation of local developmental norms. What they express is precisely communality itself, with children developing what child psychologists call ‘the diffusion of affect’ and ‘attachment to community’ characteristic of multi-caregiver societies (Weisner in Mann 2001: 33).

Importantly for our purposes, this has a major bearing on how children’s work and mobility are understood, including by children themselves. Although the ideology of Western Childhood tends to construct much of child work and almost all parent-child separation as problematic, in places of poverty and where material security is hard to come by, work and mobility for work are frequently seen as necessary and developmental for children (Woodhead 1997; Bourdillon et al. 2011). Children will be socialised as soon as they can walk into the value and importance of contributing economically to the collective. They will be encouraged to perform small tasks around the home, taking on more as they grow and eventually going out to earn if necessary. Sometimes, in order to help them access economic opportunity or to reallocate their labour power to where it is needed within the wider collective, they will be ‘placed’ or sent away (Guillaume et al. 1997). In either scenario, few will see or experience it as an injustice.

This has been confirmed by a whole swathe of ethnographic studies examining African migratory parent-child separation, many of which have emerged in part to counter the spread of dominant anti-trafficking discourse. These studies have shown that, far from being a negative truncation, a child’s mobility is often understood as a positive stimulus for their development (Hashim 2003; Thorsen 2007). Rousseau et al., for example, demonstrate that in certain Somali groups, the practice of sending young boys away to learn about tending cattle is an essential step on their road to maturity, since it teaches them the autonomy and cattle-rearing skills they will need to survive in their socio-ecology (Rousseau et al. in Boyden 2003). Castle and Diarra too have shown that, in Mali, both parents and children perceive teenage migration away from the familial home to have positive effects, since it offers children the chance to give back to their collective, to stand on their own two feet when they do so and thus to live up to what is expected in their socio-cultural setting at this stage of the life-course (2003). O’Connell Davidson and Farrow perhaps best sum up the findings of this research by explaining that, ‘when rural children reach the age at which they would normally be expected to start earning independently and/or contributing to the family income, they are often unable to find paid work in their home area. Many therefore migrate to where work is available, a decision that is often viewed as positive by both the children concerned and their parents’ (2007: 23). Rather than their curtailing, then, mobility in this picture embodies the very confirmation of (local) developmental norms.

 
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