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Open Access Publications from the University of California

After Trafficking: Naming Violence against Children in West Africa

  • Author(s): Buchbinder, Liza
  • Advisor(s): Kaufman, Sharon
  • et al.

Following the end of the Cold War, the West African nation of Togo underwent a series of economic and political crises that led to an unraveling of state authority, with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and evangelical Christians taking over the role of governance. Within this climate of economic decline emerged a human rights discourse on child trafficking. Based on field work from 2004 to 2009, this ethnography of child labor migration practices in the Togolese village of Yonda is a counter-narrative to the discourse around the national campaign against trafficking--a campaign that claims that hundreds of thousands of children are working in slave-like conditions across West Africa, one that sustains itself with sensationalized representations of violence to fuel an otherwise ailing development industry. The dearth of cases of exploitation and abuse found during the period of this dissertation research calls into question the human rights explanation: that the root causes of trafficking are grounded in poverty, criminality and self interest. Instead, this project asks how the collective imagining of Togo as a site of non-futures contributes to the community's ritualized practice of sending adolescent girls to work as domestic servants in Nigeria. This project also questions the folk understanding of the practice as a rite-of-passage into adulthood, where girls secure the clothes and dishes they will need to marry. Instead, I argue that by contributing to the remaking of youth subjectivities in the urban diaspora, the practice does more to transgress customary norms than to reinforce them.

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