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How helpful is it to talk about children's agency in conditions of extreme poverty and abuse? Using a Zimbabwean case study to reflect on the ‘new social studies of childhood’

Presenter:    Professor Catherine Campbell
Date:              Wednesday, 27 February, 12:40 for 1pm – to 2pm
Venue:          CSSR Room 429, Leslie Social Science Building, UCT Upper Campus

Understandings of children’s well-being are heavily influenced by the ‘new social studies of childhood’. This emphasises children’s status as competent social actors in their own right, exercising agency – often independently of adults – even in very challenging settings. However, there are rumblings amongst some researchers on children of the HIV epidemic in Africa, who argue that a dogged insistence on children’s agency potentially masks the constraints on the outcomes of the choices children can make in conditions of poverty, violence and abuse – and plays a role in ‘normalising’ the extent of their suffering.

Two poles of this debate are represented by Skovdal and Andersen, both researchers into the coping strategies of AIDS-affected Kenyan children. Skovdal (2010) emphasises children’s agency in mobilising support networks, generating income and constructing positive identities in extremely challenging settings. Andersen (2012) baulks at using the term in contexts where actions available to children (e.g. unprotected sex with an HIV-positive man in exchange for food) may have negative longer-term consequences. We explore these issues through a multi-method case study of HIV/AIDS-affected children in rural Zimbabwe – focusing on 360 draw-and-write exercises where learners (10 – 12) were asked to discuss the major challenges facing HIV-affected peers, and how they responded to these. Whilst children did indeed cite cases of peers showing exceptional initiative, these were minimal. Most portrayed children’s daily lives presenting few opportunities for effective action, and severely limiting their access to the social ‘goods’ they valued: the support of caring and loving adults, education, health and safety for themselves and their family members.

Discussions of agency need to (i) pay more explicit attention to whether children’s short-term choices are likely to increase their access to outcomes that they themselves value (in this case, health, safety, education, care and love); and (ii) which distinguish between forms of agency that do or do not constitute pathways to children’s long-term ‘empowerment’ (understood as the extent to which children's actions increase their access to opportunities for the positive social participation and support that they themselves would wish for).

To attend,  or fax Bee Williams on 021 689 8330 by Monday, 25 February, for catering purposes.

View the Youth Seminar Seminar programme for 2013, first semester.

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