Ndiweteko Jennifer Nghishitende
PhD student, Living with the Consequences of Slavery Cluster
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull.
When we consider life after modern slavery, we should not only consider survival, but also the prospect of survivors having opportunities to become thriving members of society. My research focuses on women and young persons who have left situations of modern slavery in the UK, and I have recently commenced fieldwork, speaking to women as well as practitioners who support them. I am increasingly becoming aware of the large gap in the manner in which mothers with children are supported, which may severely impact their potential to thrive after exploitation. Many women enter exploitation as mothers, while others emerge out of exploitation pregnant, or with young children, some having their children as a result of the exploitation.
Motherhood requires ‘maternal work’, which comprises daily repetitive tasks towards the raising of children. This ‘maternal work’ is three-pronged in that it encompasses the physical care of children, the emotional and spiritual care of children, and the training of children to be social. This makes motherhood a multidimensional role, in addition to taking care of oneself as an individual. The ‘cultural story’ of motherhood, however, makes mothers out to be strong, independent, and nonthreatening- thus expected to be able to bear almost anything.
Mothers with lived experience of modern slavery seem to be expected to conform to this ‘cultural story’ having to rely mostly on strength to survive. Strength is needed to perform their ‘maternal work’ – physically, spiritually, and emotionally taking care of their children, doing school runs – and during the COVID-19 lockdown, this included home-schooling. This is done in conjunction with moving forward; battling insecure immigration statuses; dealing with insecure, sometimes temporary accommodation; dealing with criminalisation; integrating; working (if allowed and able); dating, or sustaining a marriage; fostering friendships; and so forth.
A suspended future
Women generally consider their children to be their lives, and some mothers find solace in vicariously living through their children by throwing themselves into their upbringing. After all, a mother’s love is ‘supposed’ to know no bounds, and part of her ‘maternal work’ is to protect her child. Because the support available for those who can access it is limited, mothers with lived experience of modern slavery may have to pause or suspend their own lives in favour of those of their children. Some would, for instance, skip their therapy sessions and other important appointments, but would ensure to take their children to the doctor when needed.
However, children grow up and move out. What happens then? A mother I recently interviewed could not answer me when I asked her about what she wanted the next few years of her life to look like. Her children are her life and soon they will grow up and leave the nest, after which she will be left to deal with her past trauma that was deferred to raise her children.
The benefits of being able to work have been well documented. The inability to work, on the other hand, has been found to affect individuals negatively, as it can impede social integration and increase destitution, impair confidence, cause loss of skills, accentuate isolation and increase vulnerabilities. Working is important in restoring mental wellbeing and a sense of dignity and self-worth and the provision of a meagre weekly allowance does not address the mental health implications associated with living without work.
Mothers with lived experience of modern slavery express a strong desire to work, but there are various compelling challenges that prevent them from doing so. The issue of work affects mothers differently and it is not simply a matter of having the right to work or the capability. Usually, these mothers are lone parents, and encounter problems surrounding childcare. Some women are British survivors for instance who are unable to work due to insecure childcare. Others may be international survivors with the right to work but face other layers of difficulty in addition to childcare – women may have language barrier problems or long gaps in their resumes that are hard to explain to potential employers because of time spent in exploitation.
In addition to childcare, some mothers are also faced with skills deficits. Some may have spent many years in terrible working conditions performing unfulfilling tasks that may have stunted their productive abilities. Others may have entered exploitation while they were still children and as such were deprived of the opportunity to gain certain skills. One of the women I interviewed relayed to me that in the quest to obtain skills and thus gainful employment, she would take her babies to class with her, sometimes having to breastfeed during lectures and subsequently having to repeat modules multiple times.
Effects on children
With World Children’s Day commemorated on Saturday, 20 November 2021 (and on 20 November of every year since 1954) to ‘promote international togetherness, awareness among children worldwide, and improving children’s welfare’ it is apt to recognise the impact on the children discussed within this context. Children emerging out of exploitation with their mothers are being let down by the system, even though the need to extend particular care to the child has been emphasised in various international and national human rights instruments. Insufficient support for a mother invariably means insufficient support for the child.
Further, some children are affected by their mothers’ experiences. Those with their mothers and are exposed to their mothers’ hardships may face the possibility of stunted growth and development and/or mental health problems. Children are at times forced to grow up too quickly – taking on responsibilities such as taking care of younger siblings and sometimes even suppressing their feelings to protect their mother’s emotions.
Others are affected by being left behind – a significant number of migrant women have children and are usually unable to migrate with them, because of a lack of safe and legal pathways to migrate and other factors. Some then decide to leave their children behind, in the care of relatives, friends, or nannies, although most feel guilt and remorse for doing so.
While existing studies suggest that the circumstances surrounding each cohort of children left behind are highly variable, some children struggle without their mothers and some may become withdrawn or perform poorly in school.
The way forward
Although I am in the early stages of my data collection, I have found that the journeys of these mothers and those of their children have barely been researched. Data needs to be collected to inform solutions. More needs to be done, to ensure that women and children in this category are given equitable treatment to not only survive but also thrive, given that their background conditions are complicated. As a mother myself, I know that thriving mothers have a better chance of raising thriving children.
Caption: Mother and child photo from Pexels, copyright free.