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					Poor girls: child migrants, sexuality and poverty in South Africa Ingrid Palmary Coordinator: Gender, Violence and Displacement Initiative Forced Migration Studies Programme University of the Witwatersrand

Introduction Children are often represented through discourses of loss and this is, perhaps, even more so with children who are poor. A cursory review of the literature on childhood in Africa is filled with titles of „lost innocence‟ (Winn, 1983), the „disappearance of childhood‟ (Postman, 1982) or even (in one rather extreme case) the „murder of childhood‟ (Wyre, 1995). It would seem from the titles that there is seldom a need for any specificity on the nature of the loss and this is, in itself, indicative of the taken for grantedness of what childhood is. In this paper, I want to reflect on what it is they are thought to have lost and whether it was ever theirs in the first place. In doing so, I am of course equally concerned with what children haven‟t lost. Of course many authors have pointed to the potentially pathologising consequences of such statements of loss (see Levitt, 1989) and so rather than restate these I want to pay more attention to the losses that are experienced and presumed to have been experienced by unaccompanied child migrants as a category of children considered to have lost on so many emotional and physical ways.

This paper is a combination of reflections from researching children as well as reflections on the literature and public discourse on child migration. Several of us at the university are about to go into a much larger study alongside a range of consulting work on unaccompanied minors than we have to date and we are trying to consider the possible spaces for challenges received discourses of childhood and their productive forces in a


context of widespread abuses against migrant children in south Africa1. In these considerations I want to focus on the attention that is routinely paid to the sexual abuse unaccompanied migrant girls. In this paper, I am particularly concerned with adolescents because, as I will go on to argue, they represent a difficult and complex interplay of discourses on innocence alongside those of the potential for sexual corruptibility and economic deviations. In this paper, I want to profile two motif‟s of childhood that circulate in the ideas and practices that reflect and produce children, migration and work.

The first motif is the unaccompanied minor and the other is the northern (developing) child. There has been surprisingly little press coverage on children migrating into South Africa‟s borders. When first preparing for this work on migrant children, we conducted a media search and in every article we found dealing with migrant girls it centred on sex work. This silence on alternative experiences of (girl) child migration exists alongside a sustained lack of policy and implementation of policy such that, in spite of many children migrating alone to South Africa, they have routinely been denied access to the asylum system, with the Department of Home Affairs and the Department of Social Development unable to agree on who should be responsible for them, and are frequently illegally returned especially if they are from Zimbabwe or Mozambique2. In many ways these are children that don‟t seem to exist outside of trafficking and sex work, and when they do, we clearly don‟t know what to do with them. This paradox is arguably a consequence of a

Most children who migrate alone into South Africa come from neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe, Mozambique or Lesotho and are not documented (nor are they entitled to documentation except in very exceptional cases). The commonly reported abuses against them include exploitative labour, particularly on arms or in the construction industry, abuse by police and the army that patrol the borders and violence from smugglers that exist at these borders 2 In our research on the Zimbabwe and Mozambique borders this is usually by police who simply drive the children back over the border. Although they refer to it as deportation police are clearly not mandated to deport anyone.


border withdrawal of the neo-liberal state from provisions to children, and those responsible for them, alongside a very vocal and often moralising emphasis on their needs. The withdrawal of the state is perhaps most acutely felt when the child is foreign. Either way, the sanctity of the child is clearly not borne out in practice.

Children and sex: health, justice or moral crisis?

What is clear is that sexual abuse of migrant children has been an extensive preoccupation by media, humanitarian agencies and researchers. These are not misdirected concerns rather I want to problematise how this plays itself out in practice. My initial scepticism of the way we conflate girl child migration with exploitative forms of sex (ranging from trafficking to sex work and more commonly in the recent literature transactional sex, as I‟ll go on to discuss) came from one article I read where there was reference to a 16 year old girl beginning to have boyfriends. Except that in the article the word boyfriends was put in inverted commas – and the article was about girls involved in sex work. The same is true of an otherwise insightful article on transactional sex by Hunter (2002) in South Africa – the boyfriends are in inverted commas and the he describes the practices as „transactional sex‟. This made me wonder what the transactional component of sex does to the boyfriend to make him a (presumably not a real) “boyfriend” and if he‟s not a real boyfriend, then what is he? If, as in these two cases, the young women interviewed refer to their partners as “boyfriends” what makes us decide that this is not the case?


In part the question is answered when we look at how the media reports on the issue. In the media there are many articles where boyfriends, traffickers and male family members are all equally perpetrators of violence to the point where there is no distinction to be made between a partner and a trafficker. This is evidenced in the following extract:

The majority of SA trafficking victims were refugees that were already in the country or came from the SADC region, Thailand, China and Eastern Europe. "Refugees from other African countries already in South Africa often arrange for close female relatives to join them. "Once these women receive asylum-seeker status, their male relatives force them into prostitution." (Sapa, 2001)

On young sex workers in Thailand the article states:

"Many have been raped or abandoned by a boyfriend or husband. Given the cultural, economic and individual complexities of their situation, it is hard to suggest that these women and children have any real freedom of choice.

"The sex trade feeds on the despair, ignorance and poverty of those it seeks to exploit" (Sapa, 2001).

What is most striking is that there is no space for a sexual relationship that is not rooted in exploitation for these girls. Husbands and boyfriends are rapists. The second extract included a heading titled: not by choice. Furthermore, the source of this construction of


the impossibility of sexual agency is centrally linked to economic circumstances as is seen in the above extracts. It is because they are poor that they cannot have any sexual choice or agency. This made me smile thinking of Weekes‟ reference to Engle who stated that sex/love was only possible among the working classes where concerns about property inheritance were absent (cited in Weeks, 1985). This contradiction is a fascinating example of the functionality of discourse and raises questions about the purpose of linking sex, choice and poverty. In south (and indeed southern) Africa, this notion of the poor lacking choice has been taken up by the religious right who have aimed in many contexts to „rehabilitate‟ sex workers based on the notion that there are no choices involved. For example, the “new life” centre which operates with the financial support of the Department of Health in Gauteng (the province of South Africa where most foreigners – and South Africans – migrate to) aims to “free women and children who find themselves caught in the web of prostitution and trafficking in South Africa. Reunite[s] them with their families and orient[s] them back to the community as productive and dignified members of society” (New life centre, 2008: 1).

There is a potentially contradictory intention here aiming to, on the one hand, “free” women (assuming they are trapped without option) and, on the other, making them productive and dignified (assuming some kind of moral transgression). And so we see a familiar slide between the moral panic caused by inappropriate sexual practices belying the humanitarian response.


Similarly in the following extract, we see the underlying moral panic in an alarming conflation of sex work, homosexuality and undocumented migration:

“HIV/Aids is tearing us apart as young girls and boys resort to prostitution and homosexuality as a means of surviving, ill treatment from foreign authorities as most youths resort to illegal immigration." (Sapa, 2007)

Here the triple transgression of a universalised childhood namely migration, transgressive sexuality and work are intricately linked to show it as a concern less with the abuse of children as with moral anxieties over the failure of this model of childhood. It would seem that this is related to the panic we all feel about the HIV pandemic in South Africa that has resulted in very negative consequences. For example, the national guidelines on HIV AIDS, in addition to being very confused about who migrants are and what health services they should access states mentions as vulnerable groups: “sex workers, men who have sex with men and lesbians” (Department of Health, 2005). The rather odd reference to lesbians (as probably the lowest risk group of all) highlights once more how difficult it is to shift the debate around HIV away from the idea that it must be a result of some socially abhorrent form of sexual practice in spite of all the evidence indicating that it is the most normative, socially sanctioned sexual practices that most easily spread HIV. It is indicative of the ongoing difficulty to have any discourse of sexuality that does not slide into a moral panic.


Of course it is easy to critique a very conservative media response but, as the quote from the new life centre above has shown, these ideas find their way into practices. For example, in a recent piece of work I conducted for Save the Children on unaccompanied minors, we found that it was predominantly boys migrating and in spite of evidence of sexual violence (but none of trafficking), girls emphasised their poverty as their primary concern and their concerns therefore were not particularly different from boys. Nevertheless the final report stated that girls were more likely to migrate than boys and that sexual violence and trafficking was the primary concern for these girls. This resulted in more than a million Pounds being mobilised for support to girls. Clearly this shows that these discourses work and I understand why they are used as an advocacy strategy. However, this is becoming an established truth beyond advocacy in ways that does nothing to shift the concern away from the moral panic about young girls. A cursory glance over the research on migration studies (in addition to the media articles I‟ve quoted) indicates attention to it as a moral problem couched in the language of objective science. For example, the increasing medicalisation of the area of migration studies has meant that the attention to women who migrate has also focussed strongly on their presumed increase risk of sex work and on pathologising this through a focus on their HIV risk in spite of sex work playing very little role in the spread of HIV in Southern Africa.

Sex, work and sex-work


If we accept that this concern about the sexual practices of unaccompanied girls is as much a moral panic then it follows to consider in more detail the sources of this panic and this is something I‟ve hinted at in the blurring of the boundary between poverty and sex. And I want to do this by looking at this extract from a UNHCR magazine:

The little Afghan girl said she had never owned a toy in her life. Now she was happily skipping a rope for the first time. Other Afghan refugee children excitedly unwrapped presents containing inexpensive pencils, crayons and notebooks. Girls weaved ribbons through their hair and proudly wore them for weeks afterwards. They may have cost very little, but the gifts were the most precious objects these children have ever owned.

Fifty thousand Japanese girls had spent the previous year collecting 13,536 packages. In March, a delegation of six Japanese Girl Scout leaders and their trainer inaugurated the distribution of the first of the packages in the city of Peshawar and the rural Dir district bordering Afghanistan. It is hoped the distribution can be completed inside Afghanistan later this year if the situation there stabilizes and schools, especially for girls, reopen (Naerland, 1997).

It would seem that migrant children in this extract have lost a model of childhood rooted in kind of consumerism that they probably never had. The projection of the fantasies and desires of the northern child onto the Afghan child is what allows these children to been seen as lacking. As Burman (2008; 1994) states we have constructed a reified childhood


abstracted from political and economic concerns. As true as this is, this extract also seems somewhat paradoxical when we position these two childhoods next to each other. Here it is the economic status of the Japanese children that affords them the status of being sexually innocent and having less potential for corruptibility. And yet it is a model of sexuality equally rooted in economics as the of the migrant sex worker. In both cases it is equally impossible to sustain the notion that sexual relationships are not materially embedded. In both cases these girls are economically dependent. However for the Japanese girls, this dependence is appropriately on their parents (rather than boyfriends or “boyfriends”) and the legitimacy of this dependent relationship is what makes their consumption both invisible and indeed, necessary in order to achieve appropriate development. In other words, in the case of the Japanese girls, the ability to consume toys as the necessary aids to full development without moving into the adult domain of economic independence is what works to ensure their status as „true children‟ with appropriate sexual development and therefore without moral anxiety. This act of giving allows poor children to appropriate the bodily performance of innocence (albeit temporarily) through the ribbons and other goods associated with western models of childhood.

By emphasising the materiality of everyday sexual relationships for some children, and ignoring them for others, this becomes an act of modelling appropriate development. Not only should children play (as opposed to work) but they should play with commercially purchased toys – not stones or home made toys. More than this, however, this act of charity, which is seductive precisely through its feminised representation of girls with


ribbons in their hair – perhaps the epitome of innocence - stands in contrast to the sexually knowing and morally corrupt migrant children. The act of passing the icons of the northern image of childhood to children who are seen as lacking in childishness acts as a mirror to reflect to them how they should be. The accounts present a normalising image of sexual development: it should be linked to desire and free choice, it should be without power relations, it should be private and it should be middle-class. And, while many have noted the increasing commodification of affective work, there seems to be particular resistance to the commodification of sex (Zats, 1997). Is it about work or sex? Sex worker rights groups insist the former; the moral right insists the latter. Both the childhoods represented in this paper point to fundamental questions of how we organise sex, labour and commerce and the role of children in them. Each looks at child migrants from the perspective that sees money and sex as separate and never to be mixed but this is a theory rather than a practice in both cultural contexts I have presented. Sex is about love and love is not about money. This obscures as Zats, (1997) argues how the workplace and the market are structured by desires and the private relationships that regulate productive and reproductive labour, and indeed how sexual practices are conversely structured by the market. What I am arguing is that these social divisions are held in place, at least in part, by a model of childhood that produces particular families with non-working, non-sexually active school going children as the norm. The existence of working, sexually active migrants challenges this division and the role of children in sustaining it.


Perhaps the area of moral panic where these tensions and dilemmas are most interesting, precisely because it is less sensational and more everyday than something like trafficking, is in the area of transactional sex. This has become a burgeoning area of research in Southern Africa –driven at least in part by very useful critiques of how Northern models of sex and marriage have tended to portray a wide range of non-western practices as prostitution (Howell, 2000). Nevertheless we continue to present it as a new practice that research has recently uncovered. As Hunter shows, “the market economy replaced the homestead patriarch as the gatekeeper to manhood through marriage” (Hunter, 2002: 107). Far from lamenting this, he points to how, women valued this system of transactional sex because it took marriage (a transaction between male family heads) and turned it into a transaction that young women could themselves enter into. This is not unlike the claim that prostitutes are turning sex/affect into paid work which is subversive of the social order which demands that these be unpaid (see McClintock, 1992 for more). Nevertheless, marriage and through it a particular model of appropriate sexuality is positioned in Hunters (2002) work, as in the popular writing on migrant girls, as the key defining principle of whether it is transactional sex or not; whether a girl as “boyfriends” or boyfriends. The material practices described in the literature on transactional sex include partners providing the necessities of survival as well as those of consumption (such as cell phones or fashion) would not look markedly different for a married couple but would not result in their sexual relationship being termed transactional sex. My concern is not for determining whether sex is or isn‟t transactional but for understanding some of the consequences of how we conceptualise sex among young migrants. We are reinscribing the moral value of a love/desire model of sexuality that means that almost all


practices of sex given that they are necessarily material and social can be rendered exploitative and by implication forced because it is always possible to find material practices in all kinds of social relationships. I have been struck by the extraordinary lengths researchers have gone to show that a material transaction took place (rendering the boyfriend in question a “boyfriend”).


So in conclusion I have tried to make two main points. Firstly, the concerns about the sexuality of girl children is far more a moral panic than a concern for abuse. This is evidenced astonishing absence of meaningful responses for migrant girls. For example, labour exploitation for girls in domestic work is extreme with young girls often not being paid at all and given barely enough food for survival. And yet, we see an extreme unwillingness to respond unless it is possible to show that this abuse is worse than the abuse boys suffer or that there are more girls migrating than boys.

Secondly, there has been a refusal to ever consider sexual relationships of migrant girls to be non-exploitative and hence there is no need to distinguish between a boyfriend or a trafficker. Any evidence of materiality in the everyday sexual lives of girls is understood as evidence that this is not a true sexual relationship but rather one rooted in exploitation. This is accomplished by refusing to recognise the materiality of good childhood sexual development with all its heteronormative and gendered prescriptions. I believe this has been driven by donor demands to fund spectacular violence rather than mundane poverty


and to individualise the sources of girls abuse to traffickers rather than, for example, immigration policy. As a further example, for some years, it was impossible for migrant girls living on the Zimbabwe border to get any humanitarian assistance unless they were victims of trafficking as all funding was directed to this. This excluded girls suffering a range of abuses that didn‟t match up to the definition of trafficking. South Africa‟s concern with trafficking came after we were placed on the US watch list as a country not adequately dealing with trafficking. The political embarrassment resulted in the trafficking legislation being the fastest legislation to ever go through the South African parliament. But, as I have indicated, this is not just about what I think is a misguided focus on trafficking at the expense of other forms of exploitation. It is also about the tendency to pathologies all sexual relationships among the poor. And so by rendering every possible relationship that migrant girls enter into exploitative due to its inevitable materiality, it is possible to insist on an individualised response focussing on interpersonal relationships

In this paper I have attempted to point to the ways in which the focus on the sexuality of girls is shaped by normative discourses that pathologies the sexuality of Southern, migrant girls through a comparison with an idealised (and equally fictitious) model of northern childhoods. It is perhaps important to emphasise that this is not intended to map onto any actual northern or Southern children in a defined geographical space. Rather all children are invited to take up the representation being reproduced in humanitarian assistance to girls – as the Japanese girls in the extract above do so effectively. Therefore, this is not a model of childhood imported from the North (or West) but one that can only


exist in comparison with those that transgress it. Thus the Japanese girls are equally produced by the Afghan girls (see Foucault, ??).

These concerns clearly resonate with other writers who have considered the function of the regulation of sexuality in the colonial project (McClintock, 1992; Howell, 2000) Indeed, ? notes how the national vigilance association moved to the colonies to launch committees against trafficking and promoting a discourse on sexuality that was rooted in European concerns about sex work – whilst nevertheless being shaped and re-worked by supporters and critics in the colonies encouraged by the fact that “other nations followed the noble repentance of England” (Howell, 2000: 344). This is in spite of trafficking being presented as a „new‟ problem that is supposed to be reaching epidemic proportions.



Burman, E. (2008). Developments: Child, image, nation. London: Routledge.

Burman, E. (1994). Deconstructing developmental psychology. London: Routledge.

Department of Health. (2005). National HIV/AIDS and STIs strategic Plan 2005-2011. Pretoria: Department of Health.

Hunter, M. (2002). The materiality of everyday sex: thinking beyond „prostitution‟. African Studies, 61(1): 99-120.

Levitt, A. (1989). Political repression and children in South Africa: The social construction of damaging effects. Social science and Medicine 28(7): 741-750.

McClintock, A. (2002). Screwing the system: sexwork, race and the law. Boundary 2, 2(19): 70-95.

Naerland, V. (1997). Gifts from Japan. Refugees Magazine, 108. UNHCR.

New Life Centre. (2008). Unpublished promotional newsletter.

Postman, N. (1982). The disappearance of childhood. New Your: Delacourt Press.


SAPA. Third of sex workers children. 7 December 2001. [available online:]

SAPA. Young Zimbabweans “inspired by South African student uprising”. 16 June 2007. [available online:]

Weeks, J. (1985). Sexuality and its discontents: meanings, myths and modern sexualities. London: Routledge.

Zats, N. (1997). Sex work/sex act: Law labour and desire in constructions of prostitution. Signs, 22(2):277-308.

Winn, N. (1983). The loss of childhood. New York Times. 8 May 1983.

Wyre, R. and Tate, T. (1995). The murder of childhood. London: Penguin.


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