Children who live on the “margins” of society, such as sexually exploited children living and working in the subterranean world of the sex trade, do not seem to fit into largely liberal definitions of children’s rights that view them as “innocent” and “asexual” beings.
My two-year research study sought to discover how children’s rights could be redefined to be relevant to this group.1 I was interested in what sexually exploited children made of their childhood experiences, how they understood their entrance into the sex trade and what explanations they had for leaving.
The life histories of the participants revealed a strikingly different picture of sexually exploited children than is assumed in mainstream thinking.
The histories were revealing in showing the degree to which they are active subjects, exercising choice and making their presence felt in their varied relationships. For example, in the face of very abusive familial relationships, these children resisted abuse by rebelling, fighting back when abused, running away, turning to peer groups, acting to regulate parent’s alcoholism by removing alcohol from the house clandestinely at great risk to their safety. Their narratives also exposed the adultist, gendered and racialised assumptions held by social workers, parents and society in general, resulting in the dismissal of children’s needs.
Children also showed an awareness of how society sees youthfulness as being sexually desirable. Similarly, the active nature of children as subjects became apparent in the fact that they only left the trade when they were ready and desired to do so.
As one participant said: “So what happened was that I would get away from my pimp and began to feel a sense of ‘normalcy’… So over time I began to want to leave and so I became resourceful and found out what was out there. I started to get help and started going to people and that…” These narratives challenge the mainstream interpretation of rights as being based on a norm of children being “passive”, and “dependent”.
The narratives also showed the degree to which relationships were central to participants’ lives. This was clear from their recounting of the deep impact that negative relationships had on their sense of identity. In leaving the trade, the presence or possibility for alternative and positive relationships, where participants were accepted for who they were, played a crucial role.
Our notions of social justice where the injustices that sexually exploited children experience is defined solely in terms of “sexual abuse” was contested by the young people involved. They talked about lives filled with physical violence, the discriminatory manner by which the law treats them and above all by the “culture of disposal” that mark social relationships between sexually exploited children and society generally.
Their narratives also challenge the view that children are viewed as powerless, and adults as having all the power. It suggests that children’s rights should focus on supporting children
in exercising their wishes and empowering themselves.
This research challenges us to rethink notions of social justice rights as upholding children’s participation and putting resources into transforming assumptions and behaviour of social institutions. This may lead to children gaining the rights to participate freely and belong as equal members of society.
Mehmoona Moosa-Mitha is assistant professor, school of social work, University of Victoria, Canada.
1 Mehmoona Moosa-Mitha, Citizenship Rights of Sexually Exploited Children: Self, Dignity, and Power, unpublished. Contact e-mail email@example.com