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Documenting Child Slavery with Personal Testimony: Anti-Trafficking NGOs and the Origins of Contemporary Neo-Abolitionism in Sub-Saharan Africa

TRAFFICKING IN SLAVERY'S WAKE: LAW AND THE EXPERIENCES OF WOMEN AND CHILDREN IN AFRICA, Benjamin N. Lawrance and Richard L. Roberts, eds., Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012

29 Pages Posted: 8 Nov 2010 Last revised: 27 Dec 2013

Benjamin N. Lawrance

University of Arizona

Date Written: July 7, 2011


In April 2003, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that West African child trafficking networks involved "thousands of children." The report documented "the trafficking of girls into domestic and market work and the trafficking of boys into agricultural work." It made specific recommendations with respect to prosecution and enhanced border controls, and urged the enactment of new law to abolish child trafficking and punish child traffickers. But by far the most interesting aspect of Togo: Borderline Slavery is the deployment of real child narratives. Based on several months’ fieldwork in Togo, including interviews with approximately 200 allegedly trafficked children and with state and non-state actors and graphic photographs, the report detailed the presence of child trafficking networks in Togo and the wider sub-region.

HRW's foregrounding of personal narratives and imagery of "rescued" children constitutes an important dimension of what I interpret as neo-abolitionism, an increasingly significant social movement operating under the broad rubric of humanitarian advocacy in West Africa. In recent years anti-trafficking non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in West Africa are turning to the "emotive images" of children to reinforce the urgency of the current "crisis" in child trafficking. The use of children's personal life stories has a rich history in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. The resurgence of the “rescued” child narrative in the contemporary present demonstrates an important shift in the modality of contemporary global humanitarian advocacy, and marks a return to the emotional and moral rhetoric associated with "highly effective" goal-driven consciousness-raising and donor-oriented fundraising of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The term "neo-abolitionist" first appeared in historical scholarship in the 1960s and was used to describe the heightened activity of US Civil Rights advocates and their focus on legislative remedies. Subsequently, neo-abolitionism appears as a description of a branch of revisionist scholarship reevaluating the achievements of antebellum abolitionism and post-bellum Reconstruction. Here I adapt the term neo-abolitionism to describe the rhetorical interventions and advocacy operations of a contemporary social movement, namely anti-child trafficking advocacy. Just as Civil Rights advocates believed in the fundamental change effected by federal legislative and judicial action, today's neo-abolitionists focus their social and political energies on new anti-trafficking law. And just as Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. du Bois and others held the Southern slave states' desire to preserve the institution of slavery to be the primary cause of the Civil War, and that the nation had a moral obligation to abolish slavery and realize equal rights for all, neo-abolitionism harnesses the moral outrage erupting after each new exposé of the continued presence of child slaves and child enslavement networks. The contemporary neo-abolitionists embrace macro trends and trans-national analysis, and employ a discourse of "crisis" to amplify the "urgency" of action. Most importantly, however, like some branches of the nineteenth-century social movement, today’s neo-abolitionists establish close and effective relationships with media outlets; the prioritization of the control of the form and content of their message represents a striking departure from the broader child labor advocacy of the 1980s-1990s.

This article historicizes the use of personal testimony and imagery from contemporary West African child slaves in neo-abolitionist child trafficking advocacy. For the purpose of my argument I define "advocacy" as a form of "communicative action" adopted by a civil society organization to provoke an audience to enjoin a position vis-à-vis a particular issue or dynamic. The material production of neo-abolitionist advocacy comprises research reports and campaign literature primarily from NGOs, but also from inter-governmental organizations, focused on mobilizing public interest, shifting political debates and leveraging resources both within the domestic sphere of African nations and/or on a global scale. I argue that the neo-abolitionism of the contemporary period, which draws on the personal accounts of child victims to stimulate interest and enjoin patronage, is part of a rich historical process. Building on this observation, I demonstrate that just as child narratives published in nineteenth-century missionary newsletters have been reevaluated by historians as evidence of the internal dynamics of child enslavement in the early decades of Europe’s colonial encounter with Africa, contemporary trafficked child narratives and accompanying visual images are emotional mechanisms deployed according to particular thematic tropes that connect with a receptive audience. Child testimony is introduced almost as if it were a drama or dialogue. The contents constitute an important source for the oral history of neo-abolitionism, the internal dynamics of West African child trafficking, and the familial and social origins of today’s child slaves.

I begin with an outline of the role children, children's issues and child narratives and imagery have played in the expansion of the humanitarian agenda, from Atlantic abolition to including global child abuse and welfare programs. I then turn to examine evidence from particular missionary groups in West Africa (the Norddeutsche Missionsgesellschaft and the Basler Mission). Subsequently, I explore two neo-abolitionist advocacy techniques – namely framing the issue as a "crisis" and the reproduction of child testimony – which enjoin supporters to embrace the urgency of a legislative remedy for trafficking. An interrogation of the use of personal child testimony reveals the existence of important thematic tropes. I briefly note the use of photographic images, and consider how differences of opinion and relations with the media enable neo-abolitionists to distinguish themselves from other humanitarian advocacy. By way of conclusion, I contextualize the contemporary dynamics of the new social movements attendant to child advocacy and the ascendency of neo-abolitionism and anti-trafficking in general.

Keywords: child trafficking, child labor, NGO, abolition, slavery, law, legislation, Africa

Suggested Citation

Lawrance, Benjamin N., Documenting Child Slavery with Personal Testimony: Anti-Trafficking NGOs and the Origins of Contemporary Neo-Abolitionism in Sub-Saharan Africa (July 7, 2011). TRAFFICKING IN SLAVERY'S WAKE: LAW AND THE EXPERIENCES OF WOMEN AND CHILDREN IN AFRICA, Benjamin N. Lawrance and Richard L. Roberts, eds., Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012. Available at SSRN:

Benjamin N. Lawrance (Contact Author)

University of Arizona ( email )

Tucson, AZ 85721
United States

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