The Denial of Childhood to Children of Colour

by Judith Wanga

British Muslim girlIn yesterday’s Independent online The Evening Standard’s restaurant critic and ex-Guardian soap opera reviewer, Grace Dent, gave us the gift of her deep understanding of wider society, this time opining that the teenagers in the news who have left the country, apparently to join ISIS in Syria, should not be allowed to return to their British homes.

Dent’s approach to the girls is cynical and full of condemnation. Her description of the girls as appearing to be “cool headed, elegantly pulled together, determined young women” deliberately ignores their ages (the youngest is fifteen) which confirm their child-status. This is the same logic and defence used by those who groom and abuse kids. “They didn’t look underage”; “they were really mature for their age”. It requires you to dismiss the evident fact that, despite their mature appearance, these were, in fact, teenage girls who are naive and susceptible. They have obviously not made a wise choice at all, but — should you stop to think for a few seconds rather than rush into yet another thinkpiece? — They are victims, not criminals.

Would we say the victims of the Rotherham scandal were not victims at all because they appeared “mature” or consumed alcohol? Of course not. So why is this acceptable in this instance?

This lack of understanding about the foolishness of children is especially reprehensible given that ISIS are not alone in using child soldiers. Indeed, the Lord’s Resistance Army regularly conscripted children, either by force or by propaganda, to carry out horrific attacks in Uganda and DRC. In Sri Lanka, children joined the LTTE after being harassed by the armed forces and seeing their friends being conscripted. It is not clear if the Ugandan or Sri Lankan governments have contacted Dent or the Independent to ask for her assistance in resolving this problem. Surely it can only be a matter of time.

I was fortunate a while back to visit a project that works to rehabilitate former child soldiers and spend some time with these kids, who were now young adults. I met young women and men who had joined the army purely because their friends had. Some had joined up as a dare. These kids were groomed, manipulated and abused during their time in the army, forced to do unspeakable things on pain of death. I spoke to a 17-year-old boy who had been forced to rape women old enough to be his grandmother. He had been made to shoot his own best friend whilst blindfolded aged 12. Imagine Dent reading this description and tutting at the children.

Another young girl had joined with a friend because she didn’t want to be left behind. She was forced to kill and eventually made a sexual slave for the older male soldiers.

What struck me when speaking to them, after the initial horror at the things they had been made to do, was how much they were haunted by the naive choices they had made as children. How, despite being in their late teens and early adulthood, they were still trying to rebuild their childhoods that had been so corrupted. Dent would, one assumes reading her article that she would have them forever locked into the choices they made as teenagers.

What is the end result of condemning children as if they are adults? It opens the door to criminalising children. It washes our hands of any responsibility as to how and why these three girls were able to board a plane alone despite being underage, how they were able to be groomed without detection much like the thousands of child victims of abuse are every year, and how the ever-rising Islamophobia that guides and pushes our domestic and foreign policy played a part in this.

This is not the first time Dent has held women of colour to a different standard than others. She once referred to Rihanna, a victim of domestic violence at the hands of ex-boyfriend Chris Brown, as a “toxic nitwit” for going back to her abuser amidst rumours they had reunited.

Seven months after that, she tweeted her approval of a photo of Sean Penn with his ex-wife Madonna. That’s domestic abuser Sean Penn with his ex-wife Madonna, whom he assaulted with a baseball bat, for which he pled guilty to a misdemeanour — the same plea Chris Brown made after his assault on Rihanna.

You might wonder what the difference is between the situations of Brown/Rihanna and Penn/Madonna in Dent’s eyes. Or why the grooming of young children of colour into war is not given the same care and compassion as the grooming of young children for sexual abuse.

This is nothing new. For decades brown and black bodies are routinely denied their childhood to justify violence being perpetrated on them. The events in the US of the past year, where 12-year-old black boys are shot dead because they appear older, or the justification of targeted bombing of Palestinian children because “war is war” shows us that the intersection of race serves time and again to dehumanise and delegitimise the lives and childhoods of brown and black bodies.

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Judith Wanga is an editor, activist and writer. She was the subject of the BBC3 documentary titled The World’s Most Dangerous Place for Women, examining the use of rape as a weapon of war and the attitudes towards women in The Democratic Republic of Congo. Jude also campaigns and speaks at events highlighting the plight of women in the DRC and around the world. @judeinlondon

10 replies

  1. Everybody who thinks that 15 year olds are just making their own independent decisions should hand over their car keys to the next 15 year old. We don’t trust those children to vote, an act where their relative power would be very small given that they only make up a small portion of the population.
    Yes, we’re saying that they cannot make a cross on a piece of paper which would have about zero effect in the broader picture of an election because we don’t think they are able to make that decision responsibly. But suddenly, when they make a serious decison that has huge consequences, it’s all their fault and they should have known better. The cognitive dissonance is amazing.

    As for the sexual abuse analogy: Teenagers who are victims of sexual abuse by adults who groomed them will often defend their abusers, claim that it was their own choice and agency and think that it’s just those nasty adults who envy their own mature love. Just like those girls might claim that this was all their decision when, in fact, they were groomed by adults.

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  2. first of all that it is very unjustified to assume that adolescents who leave their families in the UK for Syria have not chosen to do so because they live in poverty; financial, social, cultural, spiritual or otherwise. At the end of the day we dont know what is going on behind closed doors. And I totally agree that this notion about adolesents who run away from home not being allowed to return is idiotic. I dreamed of having the balls to run away from home when i was a teenager. My African parents were too strict, and they didnt understand what being a black teenager in London was like. All they could offer me was seemingly outdated and culturally irrelevant guidance. If I had run away then I would have been a victim and my family would have become victims too. Victims of circumstance. Grace Dent’s comments are an exemplary example of the way islamophobia is ravaging our societal values. Its sad to hear racist comments being spoken so boldly in this day and age. Gone are the days of political correctness. People talk about terrorism as if muslim people created it. There many types of terrorism and scapegoating people is also a form of terrorism. Muslims nor Islam are to blame for all that is going wrong in the world.

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  3. I usually love this blog but I just can’t get on board with this article.
    Firstly, comparing this to sexual assault is insulting to those that have been abused. There is no evidence that these women were coerced or forced to go to Syria. Secondly, the comparison to child soldiers undermines these children that suffer in countries such as Uganda. These girls didn’t live in poverty, they were not surrounded by ISIS militants and they had a supportive, if slightly naive, family around them. They chose to leave their privileged lives in London to join an organisation that has documented killings, torture and sexual abuse. Are you telling me that at 15 years old you were vulnerable to confusion over these atrocities? That you were unable to understand right from wrong?
    These girls deserve no-ones sympathy, brown or white or black or any other color. I’d rather their brainwashed little heads be in Syria with their shotgun-wearing husbands than on the tube while i’m going to work.

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  4. Brilliant article. It genuinely disturbs me how much responsibility and pressure people put on coloured children yet let white kids get away with things under the ‘they’re just a child’ claim.

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  5. I think there are a couple of cognitive distortions in the article:
    -Victims of rape are victims; they have made no choices to be raped. These young ladies have perpetrated an act (of propagating ISIS)
    -NOTHING is “like” rape do please don’t use this tasteless analogy
    -There’s a “playing the (wo-)man, not the ball” thrust to this article where a closer examination of the context that led to these girls travelling abroad would be more useful.
    -You undermine your child soldiers analogy by talking about the coercion faced to join the army. What evidence is there these girls were coerced?

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    • I think you missed the thrust of the piece. I didn’t see a direct comparison from what the three girls did as to being like rape. The piece says that children who end up as soldiers can do so for a number of reasons. The rape anecdote is a specific – and individual – example. It’s not an abstract analogy Judith was making.

      The reasons for why children make these decisions are numerous. The article listed just a few of them. As I read it, the piece was about the way that children of colour are unfairly castigated for such choices, and how the accountability should lie with people – or structures – who may have exploited them. It’s not about the girls specifically, but how the reaction to them is symptomatic of the way kids who are PoC aren’t perceived as children.

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      • Please don’t tell a WOC she can’t read, understand and interpret.

        I don’t think we do justice to 15-16 year olds to absolve them of responsibility for their actions. In any event 2/3 were 16 i.e. obviously NOT children; they would not be seen by a UK paediatrician and they can take GCSE exams that will determine the course of the academic life.

        I do not think the comments about these individuals characterises a systematic robbing of childhood.

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        • My apologies for sounding condescending. But I read the piece as calling out those who would immediately denounce the three girls without knowing their specific motives. None of us know for sure what the reasoning is behind their choices.

          Isn’t your point about two of them being 16 years old splitting heirs a touch? I mean, they’re not toddlers, but it’s hardly an age where you’d expect them to always make fully formed, sensible decisions.

          And the point about this being part of a wider problem of young PoC not getting the same latitude as their white peers is fair, no? I’m assuming we’re in agreement on that?

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  6. Reblogged this on Thoughts, Tea and Train and commented:
    This is nothing new. For decades brown and black bodies are routinely denied their childhood to justify violence being perpetrated on them. The events in the US of the past year, where 12-year-old black boys are shot dead because they appear older, or the justification of targeted bombing of Palestinian children because “war is war” shows us that the intersection of race serves time and again to dehumanise and delegitimise the lives and childhoods of brown and black bodies.

    Like

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