The representations of childhood and vulnerability: independent child migrants in humanitarian work

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Mahati, Stanford Taonatose
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This study is about understanding the constructions of and meanings behind aid workers’ and independent migrant children’s representations of the category of childhood and vulnerability. A cross-cutting theme is concerned with expounding the ways in which aid workers construct the characteristics and worlds of meaning of independent adolescent migrants from Zimbabwe, partly through a kind of dialogic interface between local and global ideas of who these children are and the ideas that independent adolescent migrants have of who they ought to be. Exploring insights on the diversity of independent children’s experiences and varied representations in humanitarian work is at the centre of the investigation. The study challenges dominant and homogenising discourses about independent migrant children in migration and humanitarian work contexts. Based on fieldwork in Musina, South Africa, the study uses traditional ethnographic methods. This methodological approach is appropriate for studying the lived reality and lifeworlds of different social actors. This study is anchored mainly on “the New Social Studies of Childhood”, social constructionist and actor-oriented ethnographic approach developed by Norman Long. It employed thematic analysis and discourse analysis to understand the various discourses in child migration and humanitarian work. The study contributes to a growing body of literature in New Social Studies of Childhood, anthropology of childhood which documents and theorises the gap between aid workers’ representations of independent migrant children and the lived experience of these children in a humanitarian context. With childhood and adulthood boundaries often being de-emphasised or fading, this thesis , which provides situated accounts of the lives of social actors, underscores the prominence of social context, lifeworlds, power and shifting interests of different social actors in producing multiple, contradictory, negotiated and contested representations of independent migrant children. The representations of independent children tended to vary depending on the lifeworlds of the different actors and the context in which they operated. Focusing mainly on child mobility, sexuality and work, I argue that contrary to homogenising representations, there are formal and informal representations of independent migrant children. Thus, the study provides a critical antidote to the danger of taking dominant representations of childhood for granted. The complexities, ambiguities and contradictions in the representations of independent children which also generated different childhoods for different children, were a result of the significant tensions but also complementarity of local and global understandings of childhood. The study observes that childhood in humanitarian work is gendered, classed, nationalised and economised. Thus it challenges the discourses of childhood innocence and vulnerability which dominate humanitarian work. The varied and conflicting childhood discourses often led to exclusion and pathologisation of independent children by humanitarian workers. The study also revealed how the dominant discourse of childhood innocence and vulnerability was sustained through reminders of childhood and vulnerability. Noting that there are exclusionary and pathologising discourses at some moments, the study argues for critical, reflexive and nuanced representation of independent migrant children in migration and humanitarian work.
A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for Doctor of Philosophy, School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Humanities University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg February 2015