Documenting child slavery with personal testimony: The origins of antitrafficking ngos and contemporary neo-abolitionism

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IN 2003, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that West African child-trafficking networks involved "thousands of children." The report documented "the trafficking of girls into domestic and market work and the trafficking of boys into agricultural work."1 The organization made specific recommendations with respect to prosecution and border controls and urged the enactment of new laws to abolish child trafficking and punish traffickers. Among the more interesting aspects of Togo: Borderline Slavery was the deployment of real child narratives. Based on several months' fieldwork in Togo, including interviews with approximately two hundred allegedly trafficked children and with state and nonstate actors, the report detailed the presence of trafficking networks in Togo and the subregion. HRW's foregrounding of personal narratives of "rescued" children constitutes an important dimension of what I interpret as neo-abolitionism, an increasingly significant aspect of humanitarian advocacy. In recent years anti-trafficking nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in West Africa are turning to "emotive" children's narratives to reinforce the urgency of the current "crisis" in child trafficking.2 The use of children's personal life stories has a rich history in Africa and beyond. The resurgence of the "rescued" child narrative in the present demonstrates an important shift in the modality of contemporary global humanitarian advocacy, and marks a return to the emotional and moralizing rhetoric associated with "highly effective" goal-driven consciousness-raising and donor-oriented fundraising of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.3 The term neo-abolitionist first appeared in historical scholarship in the 1960s to describe the US civil rights advocates' focus on legislative remedy.4 Subsequently, neo-abolitionism described revisionist scholarship reevaluating abolitionism and postbellum Reconstruction.5 I adapt the term to describe the rhetorical interventions and advocacy operations of contemporary anti-child trafficking advocacy. Just as civil rights advocates believed fundamental change flowed from legislative and judicial action, today's neo-abolitionists focus on new antitrafficking laws.6 And just as Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, and others viewed slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War and affirmed the nation's moral obligation to abolish slavery and realize equal rights for all, neo-abolitionism harnesses the moral outrage erupting after each new exposé of child enslavement.7 Contemporary neo-abolitionists embrace macro trends and transnational analysis and employ a discourse of crisis to amplify the "urgency" of action.8 And importantly, like nineteenth-century abolitionists, contemporary neo-abolitionists establish effective relationships with the media. This chapter historicizes the use of personal testimony from contemporary West African child slaves in neo-abolitionist child-trafficking advocacy. For the purpose of my argument I define advocacy as a form of communicative action adopted by a civil-society organization to provoke an audience to adopt a position vis-à-vis a particular issue or dynamic.9 Neo-abolitionist advocacy comprises research reports and campaign literature primarily from NGOs, but also from intergovernmental organizations, focused on mobilizing public interest, shifting political debates, and leveraging resources. Contemporary neo-abolitionism, which draws on the personal accounts of child victims to stimulate interest and enjoin patronage, is part of a rich historical process. Just as child narratives published in nineteenth-century missionary newsletters have been reevaluated by historians as evidence of child enslavement in the early decades of the European-African colonial encounter, contemporary child narratives are emotional mechanisms deployed according to particular thematic tropes that connect with a receptive audience. Child testimony is introduced almost as if it were a drama or dialogue. The contents constitute an important source for the oral history of neo-abolitionism, the internal dynamics of West African child trafficking, and the familial and social origins of today's child slaves.10 I begin with an outline of the role children, children's issues, and child narratives have played in the expansion of the humanitarian agenda, from Atlantic abolition to global child abuse and welfare programs. Subsequently, I explore two neo-abolitionist advocacy techniques-namely framing the issue as a crisis and the reproduction of child testimony-which encourage supporters to embrace the urgency of legislative remedy for trafficking. An interrogation of the use of personal child testimony reveals the existence of important thematic tropes. By way of conclusion, I contextualize the contemporary dynamics of child advocacy and the ascendancy of neo-abolitionism and antitrafficking.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationTrafficking in Slavery's Wake
Subtitle of host publicationLaw and the Experience of Women and Children
PublisherOhio University Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Print)9780821420027
StatePublished - 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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