Childhoods spent on dirty streets and in sleazy bars

Abandoned Children
June 1, 2001

In western thought, children are expected to live within the protection of the family. Abandonment, whether in stories or in reality, frequently provokes strong emotional reactions. This often provides politicians with fertile ground for taking moral stands. Abandoned Children seeks to explore the complexities of child abandonment and challenges the inherently Eurocentric values used in much of its evaluation. The set of writings covers a wide spectrum of circumstances of abandonment in terms of time, place and agency.

Catherine Panter-Brick opens the volume by setting out the ways in which the concept has been used in academic and policy writings. She analyses the social construction of abandonment in relation to children and questions the western view of a "proper" childhood that underpins many of the policy responses of governments and humanitarian agencies. In the power politics of international relations, this view has become universalised as evidenced in instruments such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). However, such legislation leads to the situation where "well-intentioned intervention or even moral imperative is seen by others as unwarranted interference or cultural imperialism". Panter-Brick omits to mention the pertinent example of the United Kingdom's strong support for this convention's implementation across the world while having placed a reservation on its application to asylum-seeking children in Britain.

A second thread in this chapter is the questioning of the view of children as passive victims. There is evidence that they are resilient and ingenious in coping with their circumstances and are often better able to adapt than adults. Issues of abandonment are analysed within the parameters of the various relationships that link the child with the family and with wider society.

The rest of the volume consists of a rather disparate set of chapters. These are organised into groups: foundling history within Western Europe and the role of the state; children orphaned or separated from their families by war; street children; situations in which there are "conflicting views on the assumption and breach of responsibility" by society or parents in relation to children. The circumstances and locations range from past foundling care in the Azores through the "borrowed" children of the Greek civil war to present-day street children in Nepal and child prostitution in Thailand.

Each contributor has a responsibility to link back to the issues highlighted in Panter-Brick's opening chapter and, as in all volumes that emanate originally from a conference with a relatively broad frame of reference, the reader has to work that much harder to hold together the linkages.

The book opens many issues about the construction of childhood and the responsibilities of family and state. Social science students will find individual chapters of great interest especially as some of them explore a combination of time periods and locations not usually encountered in English-language publications.

Patricia Ellis is senior lecturer in refugee studies, University of East London.

Abandoned Children

Editor - Catherine Panter-Brick and Malcolm T. Smith
ISBN - 0 521 776 1 and 77555 8
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £37.50 and £13.95
Pages - 224

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