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Born Slaves: Child Labor in an ‘Adultocratic’ World

Posted on Mar 11, 2015

By Lydia Cacho

  A Bangladeshi girl, Sharmin, 13, works at a plastic recycling factory as a boy plays on a heap of bottles in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on June 12, 2014. June 12 marks the World Day Against Child Labor, initiated in 2002 by the International Labour Organization to highlight the plight of child workers across the world. (AP / A.M. Ahad)

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“Well, my papa hit me with a board if I didn’t bring 20 bundles of firewood, which he sold in town. I was about 8 years old, and this is how I became a man—pure punches.”

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Rafael is 28 years old and is incarcerated in a Chiapan jail in southeast Mexico for running a child-panhandling network. For him, child labor is part of life, part of poverty. The use of violence to control children is normal for Rafael. He forced the children to beg for eight to 10 hours a day from tourists and locals in San Cristóbal de las Casas in southern Mexico, and he took a large percentage of the earnings they received.

Although we wouldn’t want to accept that Rafael is in any way justified, there is a cultural norm that systematically accepts and replicates certain values and attitudes about poverty. In an “adultocratic” world, the children of families living in poverty are objects of exploitation, and not subject to laws or rights.

In Mexico, as in most of the rest of the world, a high percentage of children must survive by helping their family earn money however they can. Very early on, girls learn the meaning of double burden: They leave to earn their bread and later return home, where they are responsible for looking after the men of the house, and doing the laundry, cooking and cleaning.

Child exploitation is tacitly tolerated in societies in which being born into a poor family naturally implies working to survive, and in a cultural context that normalizes physical and psychological violence as an educational strategy. For the majority, this means tolerance of mistreatment, verbal abuse, scolding, humiliation and work demands that are far beyond the physical abilities of a child.

Rafael is just one example among thousands of people who have grown up to perpetuate the same exploitative behavior that they were victims of as children. He doesn’t understand why he has been imprisoned. He believes that the kids he enslaved for begging purposes had been abandoned until he rescued them and gave them work, food and a bed to sleep in. A childhood plagued by violence, emotional abandonment and malnutrition prevents the majority of these kids from developing the cognitive and behavioral skills that would allow them to differentiate between what is and isn’t ethical.

Injustice doesn’t have the same meaning for the average reader of this site as it does for a child who has grown up in precarious conditions, subjected to racism, a lack of emotional education and cultural training. In this world, surviving slavery isn’t the same as being a free citizen.

Socorro is an indigenous woman who, for the last 10 years, has found herself working as a sirvienta, or servant, in the house of a wealthy family. She is now 60 years old, and each time she visits her village in Oaxaca, she brings back young girls for domestic work; they’ll learn their duties of being obedient, useful and silent. 

Socorro doesn’t agree with what the newspapers say about the rights of children. If they are born poor, she says, they must work all their lives because they can either go to school or eat. Even if they go to elementary school, she believes, they’ll end up as sirvientas, so better that they’re very good so they will have patrons who will want them to live with them and who in turn will treat them well. 

She likes that now sirvientas are called domestic workers, that they can enjoy rights that she’s never had. She lived without ever resting until she was 21, when her patrona decided that she could have Sundays off, but she wasn’t allowed to visit her hometown so that she wouldn’t get up to mischief. Socorro doesn’t view herself as being enslaved by her confinement of 14 hours of work per day; her memories of life in her village are much worse.

All forms of childhood exploitation or slavery implicitly encourage victims to believe they deserve this treatment, whether because of their class, race or sex. This emotional response is a central factor in the survival of exploited children. They develop Paradoxical Adaptation Syndrome in which they resist whoever mistreats them but at the same time appreciate their help to be able to survive in an uncertain environment.

Violence as a form of discipline runs through all socioeconomic classes, but without a doubt occurs more commonly in those social groups without access to means of social, economic, educational and emotional well-being. According to UNICEF, six out of 10 children in the world (1 billion) between 2 and 14 years of age suffer frequent physical punishments at the hands of their caretakers.

Exploitation and slavery will never disappear, but rather will continue to grow and become stronger due to beliefs that, in one way or another, justify forced labor as the only solution given the immense inequality in the world. Without a doubt, sex slavery is the most horrifying form of slavery, but the most prevalent form is labor exploitation, which exists via coercion, violence and deception. Children educated through violence and coercion normalize it, not reporting it or seeking help. In their emotional universe, the concrete possibility of a right to a life free of violence doesn’t exist.

Deception, on the other hand, always contains elements that make children feel that they matter to the adult lying to them in order to exploit them. This dynamic functions perfectly, because for those growing up in this context of abuse, aggression and lack of affection, it is difficult to develop a moral compass or to develop tools of empowerment.

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