Muslim Child Disciples, Global Civil Society, and Children's Rights in Senegal: The Discourses of Strategic Structuralism

By Perry, Donna L. | Anthropological Quarterly, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview
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Muslim Child Disciples, Global Civil Society, and Children's Rights in Senegal: The Discourses of Strategic Structuralism


Perry, Donna L., Anthropological Quarterly


Abstract

This paper examines Muslim child-disciples (talibes) who beg on the streets in urban Senegal. It interprets, from the perspective of Wolof farmers, why parents send their sons to live with marabouts (Muslim sages). It then contrasts Wolof understandings of talibes with the discourses produced by children's rights advocates. It argues that while indigenous rights advocates employ "strategic essentialism" to promote minority groups' claims, advocates of women's and children's rights programs minimize discussion of "culture" and offer, instead, a meta-narrative of large-scale structural forces such as poverty, structural adjustment, and population growth-a discourse termed "strategic structuralism. " Politically expedient, such rhetoric nevertheless forces narratives about controversial cultural practices into a generic form that is as reductionist as strategic essentialism. [Islam, children, human rights, Wolof, Senegal, global civil society]

Introduction: Global Civil Society, Human Rights, and Talibes

Theories of "transnational governmentality" (Ferguson and Gupta 2002) and "empire" (Hardt and Negri 2000) see emerging non-state entities and new international juridical norms as evidence of a sinister system geared to exploit and control the poorest 80 percent of the planet. In contrast to theories that stress the inordinate power of this new transnational system, others speak of a gelling "global civil society" that unites impoverished peoples of the south with Western supporters, and which serves as a venue through which they can pressure states and development agencies to pursue humanistic rather than economistic goals (Appadurai 2000, Falk 1993, Falk 1998, Fisher 1997, Lipschutz 1992, Shaw 1994, Smith 1998, Smith et al. 1997, Walker 1994). Of the various issues targeted by global civil society (from this point referred to as GCS), the international human rights movement garners the greatest amount of support.1 It has flourished over the past two decades and has come to embrace indigenous, women's, and children's rights.

The moral goals of GCS, which aims to "reconstruct, re-imagine and re-map world politics" (Lipschutz 1992:391) shape and are shaped by the discourses of human rights advocates. This paper focuses on the intersection of GCS and children's rights programs. Children's rights advocates have allied with women's rights advocates to launch one of the most compelling attacks against global financial institutions. They have accused the World Bank and International Monetary Fund of exacerbating, rather than relieving, poverty by demanding debt repayment and imposing structural adjustment programs on the world's poorest countries. Society's most "vulnerable" members-women and children (who, it is claimed, constitute 75% of the world population)-are said to suffer the most (Anon. 1994, Bradshawet al. 1993, Cornia et al. 1988, Fernando 2001, Harper and Marcus 2000, Kilbride et al. 2000, Scheper-Hughes and Sargent 1998, Schlemmer 2000, Smith 2000, Stephens 1995, UNICEF 1989).2 Structural adjustment programs entail "short term pain for long term gain" and are especially harmful to children because the prolonged restructuration process may encompass the entire childhood of a whole generation (Harper and Marcus 2000:5). Insofar as structural adjustment leads to more female involvement in the workforce, more female-headed households, and a decrease in the health and well-being of women, their children are more prone to abandonment and abuse. The plight of children is intensified by deregulated markets, which draw minors into the labor pool as factory workers, petty traders, domestic laborers, sex workers, forced beggars, and soldiers. The cruel paradox, for children and their mothers, is that as labor demands increase so does alienation and social breakdown (Schlemmer 2000). Thus abused or abandoned children are now less able to benefit from traditional support networks than in the past (Meillassoux 2000).

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