Gendered Representations of Zimbabwean Independent Young Female Migrants Negotiating for Livelihood in a South African Border Town


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Presentation given at Gendered dimensions of migration: Material and social outcomes of South-South migration. 30 June - 2 July 2015 at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
  • 1. Gendered Representations of Zimbabwean Independent Young Female Migrants Negotiating for Livelihood in a South African Border Town. Stanford T. Mahati University of Cape Town, Centre for Social Science Research “Gendered Dimensions of Migration: Material and social outcomes of South-South migration” 30 June 2015 National University of Singapore Singapore
  • 2. Introduction (1) • I explore the gendered representations of Zimbabwean independent young female migrants negotiating for livelihood in a in a humanitarian crisis context through examining the ways they were formally and informally represented by humanitarian workers • Formal discourse - what humanitarian workers said during their formal interactions with young female independent migrant children. I call it the formal discourse because this is what they were officially expected to say, do, as well as what is unwritten or written in the policies and mission statements of their organisations and government • The informal discourse - what aid workers said in informal settings which coincides with or contradicts the formal position of the organisation(s)
  • 3. Introduction (2) • Both the formal and informal discourses are contested, utilised by different social actors and prevail at different moments • Conflicting discourses: those that support girls’ migration and those that oppose their participation in work upon migration (often these contradictory positions are held by the same person) • It is important to interrogate the gendered representations of independent young female migrants and their consequences at different moments and in resource-poor settings, where patriarchy remains dominant, adults are not able to support children, and there is enormous pressure for children to contribute to household economies (Bourdillon, 2008b) • Analysis sheds light on how aid workers understand migrant girls’ work
  • 4. Research Methods and Theoretical Frameworks • To unpack the life-worlds of both migrant children and humanitarian workers the ethnographic study draws centrally on the New Social Studies of Childhood (see O’Kane, 2008) and the actor-oriented and interface approach (Long, 2001; Long, 1992; Long 1990) as a theoretical as well as a methodological approach
  • 5. Study Site & Type of Work • Conducted in Musina, Limpopo Province, South Africa • From 2000 Musina has been hosting a big population of foreign migrants including children from Zimbabwe • Number of humanitarian agencies started operating and offering services in the poor and violent border town • Vendors, domestic workers, beggars, hair dressers
  • 6. The Official Discourse: Anti-Child Work and Girls Work Approach • Tendency in ‘official’ humanitarian discourse to depict independent migrant girls as vulnerable to abuse and exploitation at the workplace • Official understandings was influenced by global understandings of childhood and the dominant discourse of the “girl-child being more vulnerable” and therefore should be protected • Drawing from the discourse of formal schooling as the ‘rightful’ activity for children including girls, aid workers officially sought to keep children on the periphery of the economy and support them to go back to school either in South Africa or in Zimbabwe
  • 7. The Official Discourse: Anti-Child Work and Girls Work Approach • Girls were often told that without education they will later be very vulnerable to being abused by their future husbands as they will be very depended on them to survive economically • working migrant girls were alienated from the ideal state of childhood, girlhood/womanhood • Promiscuous label/stereotyping – working independent migrant girls were seen as lacking morals and engaging in sex work by aid workers and migrant boys - depicted as far from “innocence” “Good girls (my emphasis) do not cross the border. There are no girls amongst these people”, said one independent migrant boy
  • 8. Informal Representations /The Unofficial Discourse: Pro-Child Work (1) • Bourdillon and Spittler commented that “the widespread view in African cultures is that work is essential to rearing children and preparing them for constructive adult life. According to this view, work provides necessary discipline and experience of responsibility (2012: 11)” • Aid workers and Independent migrant boys cast the girlhood and childhood of independent working migrant girls positively - they saw them as victims, vulnerable and people who should work, and people with a high sense of responsibility – One of the aid workers argued that “the child labour law is not relevant to people who have left [behind] orphaned siblings to fend for”
  • 9. Informal Representations /The Unofficial Discourse: Pro-Child Work (2) • This indicates the limitations of the idealised global notion of childhood and girlhood which views children including girls as dependents and free from work except play • Independent migrant girls constructed themselves as victims, vulnerable and people who were engaging in survival acts
  • 10. What are the consequences of the complex and contradictory representations of independent children? (1) The different representations of independent migrant girls naturally generated different consequences •Gendered childhoods •Situational understandings of childhood and vulnerability – helped migrant girls BUT at times withdraw these children’s childhood status or innocence (e.g. girls who have crossed a border, living and working in the streets) •Providing and withdrawal of assistance to some children • Unlawful detention of migrant girls •Aid workers’ sympathy for migrant children heightened for migrant girls
  • 11. What are the consequences of the complex &contradictory representations of independent migrant girls? (2) • Blame the victim - “the iconography of victimhood” (Poretti, Hanson, Darbellay and Berchtold, 2013: 2) of independent children/particulaly migrant girls was not consistently mobilised and deployed by aid workers • Legitimisation/Normalisation of abuse, exploitation and violence against certain children (migrant girls) • Girls’ agency - Utilisation of social capital of being a child, a girl, vulnerable/of victim of violence abuse, exploitation • The economy of childhood was at times related to space. Paradoxically, during informal encounters between independent migrant children and aid workers, the former tended to have limited childhood and victimhood social capital outside the place of safety
  • 12. Conclusion (1) • There were gendered childhoods, formal and informal representations of independent migrant girls interfacing with humanitarian workers • The findings suggest that humanitarian workers’ contradictory and at times binary representations of independent children in everyday life – at times seeing them as innocent and vulnerable and at other times perpetrators of violence – represents their complex, conflicted and situational understandings of girlhood, childhood and vulnerability • Tacit acceptance by aid workers that migrant girls are different as they felt that these children lived and experienced childhood differently from other children - an acknowledgement of the discourse of multiplicity of childhood (Lancy, 2008)
  • 13. Conclusion (2) • Study supports’ Hashim and Thorsen (2011: 114) point that “childhood is lived and experienced contextually” and Ensor’s (2010: 16) observation that “Discourses on children and childhood are fluid and evolving”. Representations of independent migrant girls change with context, interests and are shaped by various discourses – The discourses of innocence and girls being more vulnerable at times were constantly negotiated/ challenged • Different representations of independent migrant children - a contradiction to the universal view of childhood which aid workers espoused during formal interactions - naturally attract different consequences – For example, negatively portraying migrant girls functioned to silence children’s views and legitimised the imposition of adults’ views as well as interventions aimed at empowering the girl child
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