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The Childhood, Law & Policy Network (CLPN)

Interview with Manfred Liebel about his book, Decolonizing Childhoods: From Exclusion to Dignity

Our member, Prof. Manfred Liebel (Germany), talks about his book, Decolonizing Childhoods: From Exclusion to Dignity (Policy Press, 2020).


Q: What is this book about?

European colonisation has had far-reaching and lasting consequences for children’s lives and the construction of childhoods throughout the world. In this book, I provide critical postcolonial and decolonial perspectives along with regional case studies from Latin America, Africa, and former British settler colonies to examine how children throughout the Global South continue to live with the legacy of colonialism. I explore the complex and multiple ways in which these children are affected by unequal power relations, paternalistic policies, and the violence of both state and non-state actors.

At the same time, I also make it clear that many children resist the injustice and violence they experience. I place special emphasis on children’s rights, arguing for these rights to be understood and exercised in ways that facilitate children’s (self-) empowerment and resistance. In doing so, I draw attention to some dilemmas around children’s rights in postcolonial settings, and I call for them to be reconceptualised in a contextualised and culturally sensitive manner. 

Q: What made you write this book?

The idea for this book arose from my many years of work and studies with children in Latin America, as well as some observations in Africa and South Asia. My first significant experience was in the 1980s, in a camp of Salvadorian refugees in Honduras and a rural cooperative in Nicaragua, where a terrible civil war was underway. There, I encountered children who had to endure unimaginable suffering and fought for their survival in a way that astonished me. These experiences largely challenged my preconceptions about children. I kept wondering where these children gained the strength to cope with such oppressive living conditions without losing courage and even humour. I came to realise that the children often drew their strength from taking care of themselves and others, assuming responsibility, and – a factor I consider crucial – receiving social recognition of their actions.

Subsequently, I engaged intensively with the history of colonialism, so-called postcolonial and decolonial theory, and studies that expose colonial stereotypes (e.g. in development policy and education). This drove me to try to articulate, in a more comprehensive and structured way, my experiences and growing unease over the years. I also witnessed how even well-meaning adults secretly evinced contempt and arrogance towards the ‘poor little ones’ who did not meet their standards, even if these sentiments were neither openly expressed nor admitted. Over time, I came to see these and other forms of adult disregard as an unspoken continuation of colonial subjugation and conquest.

Q: What are the main arguments of the book?

The Western model of childhood developed in tandem with the European colonialisation of the non-European world. This model of childhood has been constructed as a form of conquest of a foreign, unknown, empty, natural, and uncivilised territory. Such colonial view dominated sociology, psychology, and pedagogy generally since their inception, and specifically childhood studies in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Western model of childhood rests on two material and historical prerequisites:

  • The exploitation of colonised territories and peoples creates the material resources for relegating children to a separate social space while denying them responsibility for the production and reproduction of human life. This social space is privatised within the framework of the bourgeois family (‘family childhood’), while children are also institutionalised and pedagogised within the framework of bourgeois society (‘school childhood’).
  • The emergence of the capitalist mode of production, with its destructive tendencies, made it necessary to protect children from premature harm and to prepare them as future workers and soldiers. This went hand in hand with the emergence of nation-states, which consider their next generations as a potential for ‘national development’ and, accordingly, institutionalise them in a developmental form through compulsory schooling.

For its part, the Western model of childhood is instrumentalised to justify colonial conquest. Conquered peoples of all ages are declared children, ergo ‘infantilised’. This allowed European colonial powers to present themselves as saviours (supported by the Christian doctrine of salvation) who took on ‘the white man’s burden’ (as Kipling put it) to enlighten and civilise ‘primitive people’. In this sense, colonialism was advocated as ‘educational colonialism’. 

The category of childhood was applied to colonised peoples in the sense that they were separated from the colonial rulers in reservations and given a life of misery, which in turn facilitated their exploitation as labourers. By labelling them as childlike, there was no need for special consideration of their children, who would otherwise be entitled to a childhood according to the Western model. These children were exploited as much as their adult counterparts under the guise of inclusion in ‘shared responsibility’ processes that is common in many non-Western cultures.

However, special and humiliating treatment was accorded to children who did not conform to the norms set by the colonial powers. In Latin America, this applied particularly to indigenous children. It also applied to those who emerged as a kind of collateral damage from the encounter of the conquistadors (white men, including priests and other figures in the Catholic Church) with indigenous and Afro-descendant women. Colonialism involved the destruction and humiliation of children of all kinds: violent acts of extermination (genocide), segregation, and assimilation due to the construction of their otherness and their non-recognition as morally equal human beings.

As so-called postcolonial theories demonstrate, the colonial past leaves deep traces in the former colonial territories and variously informs of the unequal North-South power relations of today. In this regard, a decolonial perspective entails uncovering and opposing these traces and dynamics, both theoretically and in practice. To understand these past forms of domination that persist to this day, I draw primarily on decolonial approaches that have emerged in Latin America since the 1990s. This conceptual framework commonly speaks not of the postcolonial but of coloniality, because colonialism perseveres in other forms even after former colonial territories gain independence as nation-states.

Accordingly, I understand decolonisation as countering the coloniality of power in both its material and discursive manifestations. It therefore requires two aims:

  • Overcoming the material preconditions for social inequality, disadvantage, and exclusion of children based on unequal economic and political power.
  • Replacing the dominance of the Euro-Western childhood standard as a measure of the ‘right’ or ‘good’ childhood with an equal recognition of all socio-cultural forms of childhood. This recognition, however, should not be understood as a mere tolerant concession to the plurality of childhoods, but as the result of intercultural exchange and mutual learning on an equal footing.

Furthermore, this raises the question of who the potential subjects of the decolonisation of childhoods are. If decolonisation is not merely a ‘tolerant’ concession of the colonisers to the colonised, then children themselves should have a central role in this process. This is not just a speculative wish, but one supported by social reality. Since children in non-Western cultures already assume co-responsibility at a young age, they are confronted with ‘adult’ reality earlier than children in Western societies, and, therefore, find themselves compelled to play an active role in society. This is exemplified by the many social movements in which children are important and often leading actors. They can thus also become role models for children beyond the Global South and contribute to the ‘provincialisation’ of the dominant, Euro-Western model of childhood.  

Like the decolonisation of childhoods, the decolonisation of child rights practice and children’s policies requires questioning one’s own supremacy and norms. This can only be done by subjecting them to intercultural dialogue that is respectful of children’s perspectives. In this sense, children’s rights must be understood in a context-specific and culturally sensitive manner. The children of the Global South, then, should not be treated as helpless recipients in need of paternalistic interventions, as is still the prevailing view in the West. Instead, their specific experiences and competencies must be taken seriously, and they must be given the opportunity to exert a decisive influence on the policies and actions of governments and international organisations alike. It is no less important to work with children to address the structural conditions and policies responsible for their disadvantage and subjugation. This would help strengthen the social position of Global South children, supporting them in their struggle for a dignified life in a collective and organised manner.     



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