Love as Justice: Confronting the Patriarchal Dynamics of Child Abuse

Jasmine Holding Brown,

PhD student, Falling Through the Net Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

We have all been socialised to embrace patriarchal thinking, to embrace an ethics of domination which says the powerful have a right to rule over the powerless and can use any means to subordinate them. In the hierarchies of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, male domination of females is condoned, but so too is adult domination of children.

(Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks, 2000:74)

Long before Me Too became a viral hashtag in 2017, Tarana Burke, a prolific antiracist activist and community organiser, was working at a youth camp when a 13-year-old sought her out and began disclosing her experiences of sexual violence. Feeling ill-equipped to deal with the information she passed it on to someone else. The girl never came back. Burke felt guilty for rejecting the teenager instead of saying ‘me too’. Burke herself had been turned away from a rape crisis centre without the requisite police referral, and so developed workshops in Alabama’s secondary schools where she asked female students to write ‘me too’ if they needed help. Expecting only a few responses she instead received twenty ‘me toos’ from among the thirty students. A decade later, Burke’s attentiveness to the transformative power of empathy instigated a global reckoning with the pervasive relationship between male dominance and sexual violence. It led, famously, to the dethroning of some high-profile predators.

Bringing abusers to justice is imperative. But justice for survivors requires resources other than outrage and additional reckonings, perhaps less likely to feed popular predilections for scandal, or the entirely counterproductive vilification of front-line workers that accompanies the most egregious child abuse cases. The feminist movement, bell hooks suggests, was the ‘first to call attention to the fact that ours is a culture that does not love children‘, and that child abuse is rooted in the patriarchal systems of dominance that structure society. As a result, children are seen as parental property and denied meaningful civil and political rights. Though caring is, traditionally, the preserve of the feminine, in reality, ‘women are often the primary culprits in everyday violence against children simply because they are the primary parental caregivers’ (hooks, 2000:73). Recognising adult-child relations as patriarchal implicates adults of all genders.

Confronting the patriarchal dynamics of child abuse also requires us to consider the sociological aspects of shame, and how shame conditions attitudes, relationships and practices targeting children. Shaming, hooks argues, provides the foundations for other abuses. It can, for example, be imprinted upon children who fail to perform expected gender roles. Historically, it was affixed to ‘illegitimate’ children. It contributes to the conditioning that makes men far less likely to disclose abuse. It is also felt by those who grow up outside of the idealised family unit. There is a reason, as Lemn Sissay notes in My Name is Why, that parents use the care system as a threat to discipline their children. It reflects the deeply ingrained prejudices regarding the looked after and unparented – ‘a child in care is living proof of the dysfunction at the heart of every functioning family […] It’s a very serious point. It’s almost as though a child in care is toxic, but it’s when we look at children like this that the abuse can happen’.

Far too many young people struggle to elicit care or protection from the adult guardians of state resources within, and outside of, the care system. The ‘adultification’ of children racialised as black denies them ‘the benefits of being viewed as innocent’, while children from communities historically mistreated by statutory services are rightly suspicious that the state will act in their best interests. This is the reason why Gitanmaax members blocked the removal of an Indigenous child in British Columbia in October 2021. In the UK, the struggle for young people to elicit help is compounded by a decade of austerity politics and short-sighted policy making. In 2012, the problem of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale was addressed, in large part, through the tireless work of Sara Rowbotham, a sexual health worker whose evidence was used to convict nine men. Several of their victims were in state care. Two years later Rowbotham was made redundant. In a 2017 radio interview and on the verge of tears she said, ‘it’s really frustrating […] I spent a lot of time thinking it didn’t really make much sense. I really thought that there was one point where I was really on top of my game, I knew what I was doing […] My staff did incredible work with really hard to help young people.’ According to research by the NSPCC it takes, on average, seven years for a young person to disclose sexual abuse. It is entirely unrealistic to expect front-line services, now tasked predominantly with crisis interventions, to meet these child protection needs.

Stuart Hall often referred to the current conjuncture, the conditions of cultural flux that open spaces for social change and, he cautioned, posed a danger to the already marginalised. It is worth remembering that in 2014, the coalition government attempted to privatise child protection services and do away with protections inscribed in the 1989 Children Act. Public and professional outrage defeated the proposals. As England’s local authorities, who are responsible for children’s social care, face a two-billion-pound shortfall in 2022, for-profit solutions to this ongoing crisis will likely resurface.

Until recently, I had not really considered the conjuncture my research emerged from in 2019, when I started a project on the mass migration of 130,000 children from Britain to Canada and Australia. Two years prior, in 2017, historic child migration had made headlines when the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) launched its investigation into the programmes. Gordon Brown (whose government apologised for the schemes in 2010) suggested its findings amounted to the worst child abuse scandal in UK history: ‘bigger than what people have alleged about Savile. Bigger than what people have alleged about individual children’s homes.’ This acknowledgement is unlikely to have made its way into the public domain were it not for the snowball effects of the Jimmy Savile and ‘grooming gangs’ exposés of 2012. (The ‘Savile Effect’ saw an 80% increase in reporting of sexual offences to the NSPCC). This is the critical conjuncture in which the unprecedented scale and scope of the IICSA first launched in 2014, which has, to date, included 15 separate investigations, and has seen 5,440 people testify to its Truth Project. Within the cultural maelstrom of child abuse scandals that have followed, their findings now less scandalising and more anticipated, no sector and few institutions have been left unindicted in their failures to adequately protect children.

The unavoidable reality that child abuse is endemic to our societies cannot be addressed, solely, through repeated inquiry. Nor can the abusive cultures of institutions shoulder all responsibility. The emancipation of the child requires a fundamental reworking of adult-child power relations. Justice, bell hooks writes, ‘is an indispensable part of love’, abuse and neglect negate love, but affirmation and care are its foundations. What might ‘love as justice’ in our relationships with children, and not just our ‘own’ look like? The 13-year-old who never came back to the youth camp was known as trouble, ‘and she was trouble, because she was a survivor’. Tarana Burke did not, at the time, feel qualified to care for the girl who ‘clung’ to her for help. This is not a criticism. Care work can be incredibly difficult and is highly skilled, but it is vital, and must be properly resourced if we are unwilling to accept that justice for children can only be sought retrospectively. When there are no more Tarana Burkes or Sara Rowbothams left, towards whom do we imagine these children will turn?

Caption: Stuart Hall at the first Women’s Liberation Conference Creche, Oxford 1970.

Courtesy of Women Strike UK.

Human Trafficking Experience: The Lost Victim Voice

Dr Chloe Wilson

Research Assistant

University of Hull

Dr Chloe Wilson, recently awarded her doctorate for her investigation of the specific experiences of victims of human trafficking in England, shares some of her key findings.

Considering the treatment of victims by organisations in the United Kingdom [UK], particularly in the immediate aftermath of their initial identification, is key to restoring the victim voice. The very nature of the trafficking experience means that victims ‘lose their voice’, from the moment they are trafficked, to their eventual release (if applicable). Broadly, a lost victim voice relates to the individual inability to express the harm caused by a crime, or a criminal. This may occur due to trauma, which can greatly impact victim confidence. A further consideration (alongside the victim voice) is the disposable nature of individual victims. This is a term coined by Kevin Bales: a disposable person is a new type of victim, targeted as a cheap, replaceable commodity. Both of these concepts are particularly interesting when looking at the ways in which victims interact with organisations in the UK when they have been identified. The whole process relies on a level of cooperation from a victim, without which they cannot progress through the system. A disposable victim with a lost voice may be hard to support as they are often hurt, confused and afraid. These considerations emerge from a fundamental issue: the way victims of human trafficking are treated by organisations in the UK.

Victims have varied experiences, which can be split into two categories:

  1. Physical experiences, such as sexual or physical abuse, pregnancy, abortion, or illness.
  2. Psychological experiences, which affect the victim’s mental state and wellbeing, such as stress, psychological torture, emotional abuse and manipulation.

These two areas are not independent of one another – research shows that there is a significant crossover from one to the other for many victims.

The victim journey itself includes a number of substantial milestones, such as initial contact with a trafficker, arrival in the UK or destination city and exploitation. In the latter stages of their journey, as victims come into contact with the UK authorities or charity services, it is the variability of their experience that is notable.

  • How are they treated?
  • As a victim or as an offender?
  • Do they receive help initially?
  • Is there immediate support available to them?

These considerations are directly linked to government frameworks, which are in place to offer support to victims and to aid practitioners. This should provide an indication of the victim’s on-going treatment and the way the authorities may be able to improve the victim experience, in turn helping their recovery and rehabilitation.

Many external factors contribute to the lost victim voice. Many victims who have been trafficked into the UK are transported from foreign countries, meaning they have been separated from their home, family and culture. Not only have they been exploited and abused in some way, they are also very alone in a foreign place. This is a traumatic experience for the trafficked victim – the loneliness and fear of being so far away from their home and their family. This isolation can often manifest as guilt, with the victims blaming themselves for what has happened. Many feel they could have avoided the situation or that they were wrong to have initially trusted their traffickers. These feelings can be exaggerated by the captors who are likely to reinforce this message, telling the victims that they are to blame and that their families are suffering because of them.

Moving away from the trauma victims experience whilst they are being trafficked, focusing on the initial contact between victim and first-responder, is key to improving the victim experience and empowering them to regain their lost voice. Working with organisations to improve their services and ensure victim treatment is at the forefront of their agenda is a critical first step. Reaching across the globe to consider alternative approaches to victim treatment can also provide insight into best practice. In 2012, Unicef conducted a study of Nordic responses to child trafficking, with particular focus on assisting victims within the destination country. The paper considered the practical issues faced by child victims travelling thousands of miles to a new country and a new culture. Unicef suggests ways in which the experience might be improved for young victims, such as providing budgets, setting up institutions and creating action plans. It acknowledged that the progress made across the United Nations, in aiding victims and ensuring they are not left unprotected, has been slow. In short, this can be attributed to a lack of cooperative working between the organisations that are involved.

My research identifies substantive links between the lost victim voice and a lack of cooperation between organisations, highlighting the need for a more joined-up approach to provide the best possible support for victims of human trafficking. Drawing links with care for children in the UK and the notorious Victoria Climbie Case allowed me to develop an ‘Every Victim Matters’ approach. This idea focuses on multi-agency cooperation through the use of a Modern Slavery Key Worker. It is suggested that increased communication and accountability from organisations, alongside a consistent point of contact for the victim, would substantially improve the victim experience. ‘Every Victim Matters’ would improve the treatment of victims, enhance the victim experience and empower the victim voice.

Universal Children’s Day: A time to pause and reflect upon our ongoing research on children

Dr Elizabeth A. Faulkner

Lecturer in Contemporary Slavery

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

PhD students researching child exploitation at the W.I.

Charlotte Russell

Jasmine Holding Brown

Saphia Fleury

James Baker

The 20th November is Universal Children’s Day (also known as World Children’s Day), as this was the date in 1959 when the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of the Child and in 1989 the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (hereafter the CRC). This November then marks the thirty-first anniversary of the recognition of children’s rights and offers an opportunity for researchers working on child exploitation in the Wilberforce Institute to take a moment to pause and reflect together upon the role of children’s rights within their research. PhD students James Baker, Saphia Fleury, Jasmine Holding Brown, Charlotte Russell and Dr Elizabeth A. Faulkner (Lecturer in Contemporary Slavery) all work in the area of ‘children on the move’, interrogating both historical and contemporary abuses of children’s rights in situations where they are forced for a range of reasons to leave their homes and cross national borders.

As identified by Price and Cohen (1991) the CRC guaranteed the child’s ‘individual personality’ rights and set the minimum rights which states should recognise for children. But though the CRC is often celebrated for its universal acceptance (with the USA being the only State that has failed to ratify), questions still arise around its provenance and representation. Notions of the child and childhood have been heavily influenced by Western discourses and a romanticised ideal of childhood. The perception that ‘West is best’ is perpetuated in the CRC which can be interpreted as a new imperialism brandished under the guise of ‘children’s rights’, serving as an effective tool to ‘beat’ the Global South, in addition to deflecting from the continued Western dominance within the field of children’s rights. There are other problems too – within this construct children are residential, fixed and inherently local. What then does all this mean for us as researchers investigating ‘children on the move’?

The research of Jasmine and James considers historical exploitation and abuse of children perpetrated in the twentieth century in the form of British and North American ‘child saving’ schemes and the British ‘assisted child migration schemes’ to Australia.  Focusing on the early twentieth century prior to the drafting and adoption of the CRC, children were arguably invisible in the international legal system. Approximately 7000 children were taken from British (and some Maltese) orphanages and sent to work in Australia’s agricultural sector, living in farm schools thousands of miles from home, and many became victims of maltreatment, involving aspects of physical, verbal and sexual abuse. When such cases were reported to authorities by child migrants they were seldom believed, and even if they had been, children’s rights at the time were far less developed than they are today. In this way, justifications for such projects, which emerge from ideals of ‘saving children’ and of advancing British views through education, destruction of culture and populating colonies with ‘white British stock’, are interwoven into the legacy of children’s rights. It is striking how the welfare of children, or ‘children’s rights’ as we might now conceptualise them, can be tied so effectively to the ‘national interest’ in ways that ultimately harm children, assimilation through education being a particular case in point. 

If we look at children taking refuge from persecution and the consequences of conflict, this has been a matter of international concern since Eglantyne Jebb  (the founder of Save the Children), in 1920, declared that ‘the world’s children stand in urgent need of better protection’. Despite the fact that the treatment of children affected by armed conflict – the rights of refugee and asylum-seeking children  – had been dealt with by the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and the Additional Protocol of 1977, they were not separately recognised in an international instrument until the adoption of the CRC in 1989 through Article 22. The research of Charlotte and Saphia considers the contemporary movement of children, with the former focusing upon children within European refugee camps and the latter upon child migration in the context of climate and environmental change.

Charlotte’s research advocates for the amplification of children’s voices in line with the rights afforded under international law, with the aspiration of addressing the impasse between policy and practice regarding the enjoyment of rights afforded by the CRC. The voices of children provide a link between the contemporary and historical aspects of this research, as each of the doctoral research projects seeks to centralise children.

Saphia’s research catalogues the inadequacies of the international legal framework to address children who migrate, whether domestically or internationally as a consequence of climate change. In contrast to any other international human rights treaty, the CRC provision for the protection of refugee and asylum-seeking children remains largely absent from mechanisms designed to tackle the human impact of climate change and environmental degradation. (Pobjoy, 2017; Myers & Theytaz-Bergman, 2017). The recognition of the rights of migrant children in the two Global Compacts on Refugees and Migrants has been lauded as the first intergovernmental agreement to recognise climate-related migration. However, the Compact (not legally binding) is far from flawless despite making a departure from the traditional international legal architecture that has been implemented to protect refugees. The protections afforded to environmentally displaced persons are not systematic and competing priorities in migrant protection may ultimately bury the issue of climate migration. There are also difficulties when we consider the rights of children that fall outside the traditional view of children as weak, passive and vulnerable in the context of contemporary migration, such as adolescents who have decided to migrate in search of economic opportunities, as this strikes at the heart of the international legal framework.

Children are victims of some of the most devastating examples of state sanctioned and private human rights abuse, within the context of international law. Migration is the field where children’s rights come face to face with and clash with the sovereignty of states, in particular their prerogative to decide on entry, residence, and expulsion of non-nationals. The conflict between the interests of the nation state and the rights of children opens an interesting space for research into the exploitation of ‘children on the move’ during the past two centuries and beyond. We look forward to continuing our research and further discussions on the exploitation of children and the global challenges connected thereto.

“Children’s Rights” by LindaH is licensed under CC BY 2.0