Child Migration in Africa
By Iman Hashim, Dorte Thorsen
Zed Books Ltd Copyright © 2011 Iman Hashim and Dorte Thorsen
All rights reserved.
Introduction: interrogating childhood and migration
'We discovered yet another child today who had not appeared during the first household survey. She is the daughter of the household head's daughter and had been staying with her paternal grandparents while her parents were working in the south. They had both since died so her maternal grandfather decided to bring her to live with him until her parents' return, as there were only the father's brothers left in the house and he was concerned that they wouldn't care properly for her. Moving on to the next house we discovered that Laadi [aged seventeen] was back from Kumasi but her brother Moses [aged fourteen] was not, and nor will he come soon. [...] She has been helping her aunt with her catering business as well as hawking oranges. Moses, she thinks, is working on contract for a cocoa farmer.' (Field notes from Ghana, 7 February 2001)
'I approached the village imam specifically to ask about his daughter, Yarassou, as I remembered her mother telling me in 2002 that despite the fact she had not yet reached school age, Yarassou had started school the previous year. One of the school teachers in the village loved the child and had asked for her when she was posted in a rural town some 55 miles away. As the imam and I were chatting about children, family relations and, of course, Yarassou, I learned that she had only stayed with the teacher two years before her father brought her back. In his view, Yarassou was helping the teacher and had not left because of schooling. At one point, someone had sent a message to let him know that his daughter was not treated well. The problem was that Yarassou did not always do the work required of her, the teacher then tried to force her and after that, she beat her severely. After hearing this, he waited until the school holidays because he did not want to disrupt Yarassou's schooling and then went to see the teacher and, anxious not to anger her, reclaimed the child by explaining that her mother needed her help after having given birth. As soon as she was back in the village, he enrolled her in school.' (Field notes from Burkina Faso, 16 February 2005)
This book addresses children's migration independently of their birth parents. The extracts from our field diaries give an indication of the extent to which children in rural West Africa do move around independently of their birth parents. Some move to help out in the household or on the farm of the person to whom they move and/or to learn a trade, go to school or pursue other forms of learning, such as apprenticeships. Others move to find paid work – in other words, they become labour migrants. Another point both diary extracts illustrate is that children's movements are not necessarily due to parental neglect. In the West African context, parents and grandparents worry about children's immediate and future welfare, and encourage moves they believe will benefit the child, whether the moves are away from them or bring children into their protection and care. Moving about has long been central to West Africans' welfare strategies, especially those of the poor, but the frequency and normality of such strategies can be difficult to grasp when one is from a society where individuals' lifestyles are more sedentary. Similarly, strongly held preconceptions of childhood and the appropriate relationship between children and their (birth) parents can be a hindrance to seeing the different ways of being a child and of parenting. The last couple of decades have seen the rise of child-centred studies in which childhood – rather than being seen as a natural given – is understood to be lived and experienced contextually (James and Prout 1997). The claims to universality in Western studies of child development had received an early challenge from anthropologists carrying out detailed ethnographic studies in diverse societies (see, for example, Margaret Mead's (1928) Coming of Age in Samoa; Meyer Fortes's (1938) 'Social and psychological aspects of education in Taleland'; and Ruth Benedict's (1938) 'Continuities and discontinuities in cultural conditioning'). Moreover, it is not merely in 'other' societies that children's experiences do not conform to this idealized model of childhood. Children in the 'West' who do not conform to this model – for example, by being involved in child labour, being the primary carers of incapacitated parents, or being considered out of place by spending much time on the streets or living outside the family realm – are frequently labelled deviant or simply not recognized (Evans 2009; McKechnie and Hobbs 1999; Terrio 2008). Despite this evidence-based push for the multiplicity of childhood, child development and parenting (Lancy 2008; LeVine and New 2008), as we shall discuss in detail later, there is still a tendency to treat the category of childhood as a universal one. Consequently, children's migration in developing countries is rarely understood in terms of how childhood, socialization, work and education normally crystallize in their local context.
The book thus addresses not only children's migration independently of their birth parents but argues for the importance of interrogating strongly held ideas about childhood in order to fully apprehend as well as comprehend children's movement. The issues at stake in rural West Africa will become clearer through the course of the book as we explore the different paths young migrants follow – whether they do so intentionally, happen to be pushed in that direction by adults, or seize upon an opportunity when it arises.
Universalizing ideals of childhood
Powerful ideas regarding what childhood consists of inform child protection work and legislation surrounding family relations, as well as many scholarly analyses and media representations of social practices involving children (Boyden 2001). Yet, childhood as a social concept did not always exist. In the early 1960s, the French historian Aries claimed that the very institution of childhood did not emerge until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; even later among the working classes. It has not always been the case, for example, that children and work were viewed as incompatible. The first campaigns against child labour in Britain did not take place until the 1830s and 1840s (Hasnat 1995: 424). Many historians trace the rise of this in Britain to the period of the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. Industrialization created a huge demand for labour, which children were instrumental in filling. Children moved out of the home and into factories and mines. However, in doing so they also became more visible. The harsh conditions and long hours their work involved jarred with elite sensibilities at the time, which dictated that individuals needed protection and guidance through their early years. The result was protests and demands for legislation against child employment (Hendrick 1997). Factory owners, and parents who resented state interference in their lives, resisted this. However, this initial resistance to legislation limiting children's involvement in work and to compulsory schooling gradually gave way, owing primarily to rising wages for men, the increasing engagement of women in the labour force and technological advances that reduced the demand for children in factories (Cunningham and Viazzo 1996). State intervention in the family in the form of compulsory education in response to the need for educated wage labourers eventually extended children's dependency into adolescence. Their cost to the family soon became considerably greater than just that of their forgone labour, so that 'children have subtly but rapidly developed into a labour-intensive, capital intensive product of the family in industrial society' (Minge-Kalman 1978: 466). These processes, combined with a dramatic drop in birth rates, also resulted in changing ideals about childhood, and a view emerged of the child as a purely emotional and affective asset. The economic and sentimental values of children increasingly came to be seen as incompatible, resulting in the view that only callous or insensitive parents violated this boundary, while properly loved children belonged in a domesticated, non-productive world of lessons and games (Zelizer 1994). This affective transition is summarized well by Kabeer, who notes how the transition from an old to a new mortality pattern in Britain was associated with a series of interdependent changes. These included:
improved chances of child survival, greater resort to contraception, changing perceptions of human life, personhood and individuality, the emergence of affective relations within the family, more personalized parent–child, particularly mother–child relationships and a new reproductive strategy which entailed giving birth to fewer infants and investing more heavily (emotionally as well as materially) in each one from birth onward. (Kabeer 2000: 468)
Protests and subsequent legislation against children's employment in Britain were mirrored in other industrialized countries, with the result that moves were made to adopt international legislation against child labour. In 1919, the first of such legislation was instituted with the International Labour Organization's (ILO) Convention on Minimum Age in Industry (No. 5) (ILO 1996: 23). Between 1919 and 1998 a further ten conventions on or related to child labour were adopted by the ILO. The most far-reaching of these is the 1973 Convention Concerning Minimum Age for Admission to Employment (No. 138). This convention obliges ratifying states to fix a minimum age for admission to employment or work and to undertake to pursue a national policy designed to ensure the effective abolition of child labour (ibid.: 24–5).
However, the resistance to child labour legislation witnessed in the industrialized world was mirrored in the developing world. In this instance, in addition to accusations of cultural imperialism, the motives behind moves to prevent the import of goods produced by child labour were questioned. Some argued that the protection of Northern workers' jobs and trade protectionism, rather than child protection, were the key factors (Hasnat 1995; see also Rosemberg and Freitas 1999, Tan and Gomez 1993). For instance, Panicker notes, 'their hearts started bleeding for the poor children of the south only after the liberalization process began and today practically all nations of the south are caught in the web of globalization. The "free market" is what set the agenda and the priorities' (Panicker 1998: 284–5).
The overall effect was that by the late 1990s the debate about child labour had reached something of an impasse. As a result, much attention is now directed at the worst forms of child labour, such as prostitution, child 'trafficking' and children's involvement in armed conflict, since there is consensus that these are patently harmful and exploitative (Myers 1999: 24). This is reflected in the drawing up of the latest convention on child labour, ILO Convention No. 182 Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (1999). This convention, which is more widely ratified than the Minimum Age Convention, obliges ratifying states to take immediate and effective measures to prohibit and eliminate practices such as slavery, the commercial sexual exploitation of children, the use of children in illicit activities, and work which, by its nature or circumstances, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of a child.
Even more widely ratified is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), adopted by the General Assembly in 1989. Developed over ten years, with input from representatives of all societies, religions and cultures, the CRC brought together, in a single legal instrument, all standards concerning children. It is the most widely accepted human rights treaty and is significant in its claim to the universality of a particular model of childhood, which we refer to as the universalizing ideal. We use this term to underscore that this model of childhood is one that not only is not the reality in many contexts, both in the developing world and the industrialized world, but is also frequently one that is contested. Our aim is to reiterate that there is not a static category of childhood, even though international legal instruments may give the illusion of constancy and permanence, but there still exist very powerful normative ideals of childhood, which emerged as a result of the affective transition described above.
Undoubtedly, the CRC was an important advance in many respects, and it certainly aimed both to protect and empower children by defining them as a category apart from adults. However, it has also been criticized for precisely the same reasons. By treating children as right-holders in their own right, the CRC has expanded the reach of the state into the family by empowering outside professionals to represent the interests of the child, displacing the child's family as the primary advocates of a child's interests (Pupavac 2001: 100). While on the one hand the lack of enforcement of the CRC means that the rights it guarantees are rarely enacted in practice, its almost universal ratification has meant that it has become central to international principles and policy. The African Union's (AU) Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (AU 1990) is a case in point, which we shall return to below.
Other criticisms of the CRC are that it has trivialized certain rights (Ansell 2005; Ennew et al. 2005). Entitlements to government protection and services have received more attention than children's rights of empowerment. Critics have suggested that 'this leaves children more vulnerable because it reinforces the idea that they are wholly dependent on adults and reduces their capacity for autonomy' (Ennew et al. 2005: 32, emphasis in original). Moreover, the emphasis on children's dependency contradicts the reality of many children's lives because it ignores children's role as producers and therefore places working children on the margins of what is perceived as proper childhood, despite the necessity or normality of their contribution to family activities (Ansell 2005: 230; Boyden 2001; Punch 2001a: 805; Robson 2004b: 241). A different critique addresses the aim of the CRC's Article 12(1), which assures a child's 'right to express [his or her own views] freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child' (UN 1989). The idea that underlies the right of free expression draws on a Western understanding of decision-making as a verbal, discursive process. This contrasts with societies where notions of respect govern everyone's speech and stipulate what can be discussed openly and by whom (Ferme 2001: 7), and where the expression of ideas and aspirations entails acting upon them in strategic or tactical ways to get away with specific actions or to indirectly convey opinions (Thorsen 2005). These critiques are pertinent to understanding children's migration, and the lack of attention to the conceptualization of childhood explains why there exist tensions and contradictions within the debates around the issue (Hashim 2004: 13).
Another ideal of childhood is the one presented in the AU's Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (AU 1990). As pointed out by de Waal (2002), many of the articles in the charter are almost identical with the CRC. The African Charter diverges from the CRC in one important respect, in stressing not only children's rights but also their responsibilities towards their family. This it does in Article 31, which reads: 'The child, subject to his age and ability [...] shall have the duty to work for the cohesion of the family, to respect his parents, superiors and elders at all times and to assist them in case of need' (ibid.). Research carried out with African parents in Nigeria confirms the importance parents place on children's participation in activities that would be considered work in the global perspective, as part of children's socialization process (Ajayi and Torimiro 2004). It illustrates how different constructions of childhood prevail in diverse contexts. In this model, children are allowed a productive role while still being kept as juniors in the social hierarchy. Having rights and duties complicates the categorization of children as mere dependants, as well as their being thought about in terms of being autonomous individuals. They are neither; the African Charter affirms the importance of social personhood and thus of being embedded in social units (Ansell 2005: 230; Cheney 2007).
The fact that African leaders felt the need to formulate an African model for children's rights illustrates the diversity of understandings of childhood, and yet there continues to be a tendency to regard childhood as a universal category, rather than perceiving it as an empirical question (Boyden 2001; Jenks 2004: 5). As we have noted, such ethnocentric attitudes may hinder an understanding of the motivations and justification for particular practices because they fail to accept that people may have other ways of doing things and other ways of living their lives. This inevitably raises the issue of cultural relativism – especially when it is a question of children's welfare – since it raises questions related to whether we should seek universal measures of quality of life for all or 'defer instead to the many different norms that traditional cultures have selected' (Nussbaum and Glover 1995, cited in Jackson 1997: 146). It is for this reason that cultural relativism is often posited as the opposite of ethnocentrism. However, as Eriksen (1995) points out, they are not binary opposites since the former does not in itself contain a moral principle. Rather, cultural relativism is a methodological and theoretical necessity if one is attempting to investigate societies and understand their own inner logic and workings (ibid.: 13). This is precisely what this book seeks to do; to unfold the material, social and cultural dimensions of children's migration in the West African savannah without moral prejudices about local notions of the child, parents, family and home. This, however, does not imply an uncritical view of practices that may result in suffering or distress for children. Rather, our aim is to examine how children, themselves, experience various practices and how they act upon these experiences. (Continues...)
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