Childhood and wage-earning

Book exchanges are truly wonderful resources – one often picks up (for free) a book one may not have chosen otherwise. In this way, I recently read Paulo Coehlo´s The Fifth Mountain, and now I am finding the work of Heather Montgomery on child prostitution fascinating.

Montgomery provides a welcome analysis of the concept of childhood as cultural phenomenon. She examines the Western concept that childhood is some kind of special space, free from having to work and full of play by innocents. The lack of congruence of this image with economic necessities in many countries is striking. Here, in Central America (I am currently in El Salvador), it is obvious that families need the income from children´s work. Whether they sell earrings on the beach to tourists, mind the corner shop, or milk the cows, the concept of childhood as being eighteen years of consumption without production is clearly not valid here.

Nor, perhaps, is it useful. We complain about middle- and upper-class children in the Global North not understanding the value of money, and yet we prevent them from being able to work and learn that value.

I am not lobbying for factories full of four-year olds or quarries with six-year-olds lugging stone. But I am arguing for a clear, less rosy, vision of what childhood means in many societies. Montgomery argues that perhaps the image of childhood innocence obstructs rather than helps the public to address the real problems of child prostitution. I would say the same about child abuse (unpaid), which we know is rampant in all our societies. Recently, I was struck by a newspaper description of a female child raped by a workman in Guatemala, and the conclusion that her life is now utterly ruined and that she will need psychotherapy all her life. Is it fair, or useful, to consign someone to the emotional trash heap due to a single experience? I am not claiming this was not a pivotal experience as it undermines much of what we think we know about the world and its safety, but to predict the complete destruction of a personality due to a single experience gives undue weight to a single event. It perpetuates the powerlessness of being abused. In this scenario, there is nothing the survivor can do which will be effective in creating a positive future for herself. I would say the same even regarding repeated abuse in childhood: a person abused for a decade in childhood hopefully has six or eight more decades to enjoy a productive life of love. Or do you think it is more healthy to tell this person she or he will never become whole, and that the powerlessness of being abused will continue now matter what he or she does, because society insists abuse must define her entire life? (Do you wonder why abused people often become suicidal, with this bleak future, about which they can do nothing, predicted as inevitable for them? )

In the society in Thailand described by Montgomery, children are only required to attend school until the age of 12, and many do not even attend those six years. This is comparable to the situation described to me for many rural children in Central America. If we agree that people derive the essential sense of meaning in their lives from work, creativity, or love (as described in a previous post on Viktor Frankl´s book), then the development of work options for children who are not in school, or are not in school full-time, may assist in development of a sense of meaning in their lives.

Montgomery repeats quite compellingly the tragedy of Global Northern societies requiring that the child prostitutes are innocent, powerless to stop their coercion, rescued, and then condemned to due from AIDS. She points out that the reality is more complex, and that the child prostitutes in Thailand may gain a sense of meaning from, for example, being able to provide for their family an income, a roof on the house, and higher status. Again, neither she nor I are arguing for this economic sector – but, given that it currently exists, that the children working in the sec trade do derive meaning which helps buoy their lives, is good.

Like the drugs economy here, child prostitution is created as a labour pool by the demand. Poor people will accommodate themselves to the work market available, whether it is stitching sports shoes or trousers for incredibly low wages, or catering to other demands. Recognizing and treating the illnesses that incite people to seek sex with children will help with the problem at home as well as abroad. But demanding the destruction of a life as proof that the abused child was a victim, requiring that child sex workers are innocents kidnapped or forced, is the real destruction of life. It gives no room for the complexity: the choices the children are making, the position of needing to work in which they are placed by economic forces and inequality, or the ways in which they make the abuse into something different that only destructive in their lives.

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