On children as diagnosticians of their own well-being
Veena Das (2015, 29) writes that ‘diagnostic categories are the starting points or building blocks for constructing therapies’, and this claim holds true for different therapies and their respective illnesses (see also Davis 2000). In Zanzibar Town, where I conducted research from 2014–2015, child protection agencies claimed that corporal punishment was the most common form of violence that children experienced on an everyday basis in schools (UNICEF 2011). In response, initiatives against the use of corporal punishment, as led by international children’s rights organisations, were frequently conceptualized as a ‘therapy’ against the ‘illness’ that is hitting or smacking children as a form of discipline in schools.
In this think piece I argue that it is not sufficient to understand the notion of ‘child protection’ – typically a policy-defined effort to respond to child abuse and neglect – as a specific cure to ‘treat’ physical chastisement. Instead, I suggest, we need to understand more about the threats and risks young people face, more about physical chastisement beside its illness-like quality, and more about the other dimensions of protecting children. I propose to rethink ‘child protection’ by drawing on the perspectives of Zanzibari children[note 1]Despite having obtained consent for the use of these images, I have not included any photographs that show identifiable faces, to fully assure the anonymity of my research participants and the subjects they portrayed.
between the ages of nine and sixteen, with whom I conducted research. While young people have become more central collaboration partners in development work, they remain side-lined as valuable knowledge producers in anthropological approaches.
In The Illness Narratives, medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman (1988, 4) emphasises that when we study illness we must also pay close attention to a ‘patient’s judgments about how best to cope with the distress and with the practical problems in daily living it creates’. While conducting research on child protection in Zanzibar Town, I stuck to this approach, first listening to people’s experiences and conceptualizing treatment, or cure, in response to their lived realities. Doing so, I considered children as diagnosticians in their own right, better positioned than other actors to answer the question of what exactly they should be protected from. Taking young people’s views as my point of departure was helpful in rethinking how to prevent and respond to the potential harms that they faced, harms that might go beyond physical punishment and may thus demand a more variegated response.
What is meant by children’s ‘well-being’ in a specific context and place is partially reflected in the institutional ways that ‘care for children has been organized’ (Sandin 2014, 31). Dominant discussions ‘about what is good for children that are voiced by the professional groups that claim precedence in the defining of well-being’ reflect the meaning of children’s well-being (Sandin 2014, 65). Children’s well-being is of course complex and multidimensional, and child well-being indicators have frequently shifted in recent decades (Ben-Arieh 2010). Despite this, there has been limited ‘published research on what children themselves regard as the important elements of well-being’ (Moore and Oberklaid 2014, 2262).
With a broader concept of well-being, I argue for the necessity to listen closely to young people’s views on their own safety and well-being – here expressed in the form of photographs – for this allows us to understand their everyday challenges and the seemingly ordinary experiences that may be overlooked by adults. A close reading of young people’s descriptions of their photographs helps to avoid reducing the multiple obstacles they face to one issue only, like corporal punishment in educational institutions. This builds a case for Michael Bourdillon and William Myers’s (2012, 619) suggestion to ‘replace the concept of “protection” with the idea of promoting well-being and development, drawing on assets that may inhere in the situation’.[note 2]Their claim echoes human development and capability approaches that build on the direct improvement of life quality (Sen 1999; Nussbaum 2011).
Avoiding essentialist notions of culture and childhood, foregrounding the subjectivity of young people, and taking their own perspectives seriously may contribute to the provision of more effective care in the realm of child protection.
After outlining the broader context of my research, I present some of the photographs that my young research participants produced. I explore what these images can tell us about child protection discourses and practices in the development field. I then contrast the images with some of the young people’s statements about care and well-being that came out of another creative research task. I suggest that in order to see beyond the photographs and to understand the images in the context of the youth’s general needs, it is necessary to prioritise their explanations of the images. With this I support the argument made by Ben Arieh and colleagues (2014, 16): assessing children’s well-being must include ‘children’s conditions of living and “objective” measures of their well-being’, as well as their ‘perceptions, evaluations, and aspirations regarding their own lives’. Doing so allows us to see how child protection policy and practice could become more effective by orienting interventions towards young people’s broader needs and by acknowledging the links and relationships that define their daily lives. Above all, this approach makes clear that child protection should also be approached as a health matter, and that the concept should not be reduced to strategies that primarily aim to ban corporal punishment in schools.
In 2009, Tanzania, to which the half-autonomous archipelago Zanzibar has belonged since 1964, was one of the first countries in Africa to undertake a National Study on Violence Against Children (UNICEF 2011). According to this study, corporal punishment is the most normalised and widespread form of violence[note 3]According to UNICEF (2011, 7), violence against children includes: physical abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect. Physical abuse includes hitting.
that young people face on a daily basis in Tanzanian and Zanzibari schools. Following this finding, international children’s rights organisations, like Save the Children and UNICEF, led the implementation of a standardised child protection system in collaboration with the Zanzibari government. According to these organisations’ policies, ‘child protection’ is defined as ‘a set of measures and structures to prevent and respond to abuse, neglect, violence and exploitation affecting children’ (Save the Children 2013, 5).
In Zanzibar, corporal punishment is simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, normalised and contested. Child protection policies have become a tool to secure or re-establish young people’s well-being and improve their quality of life; these aim to restrict practices considered harmful or abusive according to the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) of 1989. They work by implementing various tools of enforcement, especially law. Still, physical chastisement remains a normalised practice throughout almost all educational contexts in Zanzibar. At the same time, the practice is made extraordinary under the international gaze, which condemns it and opposes its continuation. Following the CRC, child protection programmes suggest that children’s lives should be free from corporal punishment, and they seek to measure child protection approaches with indicators like justifications for ‘violent discipline’ (UNICEF 2015, 89). Child protection activists deem corporal punishment the most common form of violence that children face in educational settings, but locally it is not widely understood as violence. Instead, the prevailing discourse in Zanzibar categorises it merely as a form of discipline.
While Zanzibari government actors are collaborating with international organisations to establish an integrated child protection system at the national level, Tanzania remains one of the few countries globally where corporal punishment has not fully been prohibited in any setting (GIECP 2016). Reflecting this apparent contradiction in policy, Article 14 of the Zanzibar Children’s Act of 2011 states that children should not be ‘subjected to violence, torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment’, but it also allows parents to ‘discipline their children in such manner which shall not amount to injury to the child’s physical and mental well-being’ (Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar 2011). Further, Zanzibar’s Education Act of 1988 includes Regulations for Corporal Punishment that allow headmasters to administer up to three strokes of caning (Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar 1988). Such room for individual interpretation often makes legislation little more than symbolic. To add to this ambiguity, there is much disagreement concerning what physical chastisement actually entails. While, for example, the Zanzibari government claims that ‘corporal punishment does not apply in the education system’ (GIECP 2016, 2), they also approve caning in schools as ‘a legitimate and acceptable form of punishment [not intended to] be violent, abusive or degrading’ (GIECP 2016, 2). Many of my research interlocutors onlyrejected the harsh application of caning that neglects religious rules for appropriate administration, like hitting without raising one’s arm; they generally accepted smacking, a considered to be ‘lighter’ application.
During fieldwork in Zanzibar I worked with a group of sixty child research participants at four primary schools and two madrasas (Qur’anic schools). Photography was one of the methodological tools I used to support students’ visualizing power as diagnosticians. While ‘photos capture things prose cannot’, as David Crawford and Bart Deseyn (2014, 15) propose, this of course ‘does not mean they reveal everything’. Thus photography was never the only method for my inquiry, but rather a valuable additional tool that helped to contextualise other data gained through more conventional ethnographic research methods like interviews and participant observation. The young people’s images in this essay were produced as part of three photovoice workshops[note 4]The photovoice sessions took place in the context of a doctoral research project in anthropology that explored Zanzibari young people’s, teachers’, religious leaders’, and aid workers’ perspectives on and hesitations towards internationally initiated child protection programmes.
that I led between January 2014 and July 2015. I asked my young research participants to keep in mind the following themes when capturing images: childhood (wakati wa utotoni), manners/courtesy (adabu), punishment/chastisement (adhabu), and safety/protection (usalama/ulinzi). This enabled the intellectual goal of these activities to remain broad and allowed findings beyond these three organising concepts.
Using photography to understand children’s experiences of protection and punishment brought out the ‘embodied and sensory nature of social interactions and environments’ (Pink 2009, 20), allowing viewers to grasp the sensory richness of children’s environments and showing that ‘there are experiences to which children might give expression that are beyond the reach of adults’ (Das 2015, 59). While young people are increasingly involved in visual research projects, they may not always be granted full authority in their analysis or ownership over their material productions. I supplied the young people with copies of their photographs to counter this tendency. I also let them select the images they wanted to have included in the research and had them add explanations of each image. The photographs and accompanying descriptions show that children’s voices ‘become important as sources of information about the well-being of children’, and that, if we allow them to be, children can indeed be ‘competent informers’ (Sandin 2014, 69).
The productive potential of studying social problems through visual approaches such as photography or drawing has most recently been emphasised by Jean Hunleth (2019, 160) who demonstrates by means of Zambian children’s drawings ‘that children produced image-rich fantasies of performing care in the past, present, and future in an effort to elicit behaviours and feelings they wanted to produce in their kin’. What Hunleth describes for the drawing process applies similarly to the photographs that inform this piece. The youths’ photographic depictions show what for them is included in the concept of protection, and what this means for how the adults in their communities should protect them. This ultimately reveals what Christopher Pinney (2011, 8) has called ‘the protective potential of photography’: the way photographs may be utilized to negotiate conditions of well-being with powerful actors like state or international organisations and how they may contribute to preventing punishments or harm.
As photographs do not speak for themselves, I aim to look beyond them and draw on what the children tell the viewer with their images in the form of the words they added to elaborate on them. As ‘a means of making “real” (or “more real”) matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore’ (Sontag 2003, 6), the photographs I place at the centre of this think piece help to define child protection in a less abstract fashion than child protection organisations tend to. They make real some of the everyday challenges and risks that young people in Zanzibar face and emphasise things they claim as their rights. The images do not, as Sontag (2003, 8) critically reflects, serve to confirm ‘a general abhorrence’ or ‘to dismiss politics’ that define the context they are set in. Instead of polarizing or depoliticizing, the images visualise what at first sight frequently does not appear as abominable and only reaches full shape when paired and understood together with the children’s added words.
Based on these insights, this think piece argues that the category of ‘child protection’ needs to be understood beyond eradicating caning in school and should reflect the nuances that young Zanzibaris connect to being young and being safe. I suggest that child protection actors should take young people’s insights seriously – with the insights that follow in visual form constituting only a glimpse into their perceptual worlds – and use them as a starting point for improving child protection policies and implementation. This could ultimately contribute to preventing child protection programmes from unintentionally decontextualising childhood in harmful ways, for example, by disregarding the specific challenges that young people in Zanzibar face and building exclusively on universalised rights frameworks.
Looking at images
Despite its potential to reveal insights that would otherwise remain inaccessible, photography as a research tool has its limits. Similar to drawings, which I have also used as a visual research approach, photographs ultimately remain ‘an unapologetic reduction of reality from three dimensions to two’ (Causey 2017, 35). Children’s realities and experiences go beyond what is possible to capture in an image. Thus, the young people’s photographs only offer partial perspectives into children’s lives and may serve as additions to but not as an adequate ‘substitute for children’s voices’ (Mitchell 2006, 69). To gain insights into difficult experiences, such as those of violence or pain, I combine children’s visual accounts with observations and anecdotes they offered in less formal research situations, such as after group sessions or during private visits.
As children who participated in the workshops suggested, safety and protection – both as feelings and as states – are produced by a variety of factors. In the first image, a girl depicts what she considers to be one of them: children’s freedom to receive both worldly and religious education. The young boy pictured in the photograph, dressed in kanzu and kofia, appears to be heading towards his madrasa for lessons in the Qur’an, an integral part of Zanzibari children’s everyday educational routine.
In photograph 2, we are shown a scene of young people playing football in the street, with the photographer elaborating that it is not just play, but being able to play ‘with safety’, that is important to her understanding of feeling protected.
In photograph 3, the thirteen-year-old photographer points out the risk of sexual abuse or theft by picturing no more than an isolated path on the way to the Qur’anic school. The image powerfully reflects the dangerous situations an unattended child could encounter there.
To consider children’s well-being and safety in the community more broadly, my child interlocutors repeatedly expressed the need to prevent neglect and disease. The girl who took the photo in figure 4 presents us with a house ‘in a clean environment’, which suggests that the absence of pollution – common in Zanzibar Town – resonated with her regarding the idea of feeling safe. In figures 5 and 6, young people write that children should be provided with care, shelter, food, hygiene, and safety from abduction. The important role adults hold in offering safety and protection to the younger generation is particularly evident here.
Several of the Zanzibari children who took the images in this photo essay emphasised the poor state of the infrastructure where their education took place. As in figure 7, this was often expressed by taking the opportunity to ask for support to improve these conditions. A concept of protection must therefore already be understood as two-fold, including the physical environment and the moral-social environment. Figure 8 reiterates a conceptualization of protection, or a feeling of ‘being safe’, with reference to the physical environment young people dwell in. The right to live ‘in a nice place’ in the above photograph is expressed and claimed by portraying a well-stocked and orderly kitchen area.
Bodily integrity, as addressed in figures 3 and 5, was a recurring theme in the young people’s images, often in relation to notions of health and protection from potential threats. Two further ideas of this kind are expressed in figures 9 and 10: car accidents and the suitability of hard work. Both scenarios again implicitly stress the role that adults play in making sure children in Zanzibar are safe, calling on their elders to protect them from traffic, labour, abuse, or disease.
Seeing beyond images
These images paint a multifaceted picture of what being safe and protected in society means from children’s own point of view. Their visual accounts express their wishes for educational development and play, physical protection from predators, hygiene and bodily integrity, a basic standard of living, appropriate labour, good quality food, and adequate infrastructure in the spaces where they dwell. Claiming much more than protection from physical chastisement, their visual work showcased the broad spectrum of safety needs they identified as crucial for their well-being. This echoes the suggestion by Bourdillon and Myers (2012) – that the idea of promoting well-being should replace the concept of protection – and goes beyond what child protection programmes address when they target corporal punishment in isolation.
Well-being is conceptually related to health (Morrow and Boyden 2014; Stevenson and Worthman 2014). While ‘health’, in its broadest sense, describes a state of ‘complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not the mere absence of disease or infirmity’ (WHO 1948), ‘care’ can be understood as looking after people with the aim to assure their well-being in society. The young people’s photographs have shown clearly the extent to which ‘well-being includes subjective and experiential aspects, as well as objective material and health and other assessments’ (Weisner 2014, 87). Following this, the ‘organisational tendency to deﬁne “child protection” as a discrete policy or programme area, separated from health, education, and other development-oriented activities’ encourages ‘single-issue approaches that by addressing a particular ill in isolation only generate new ones in different areas of children’s lives’ (Bourdillon and Myers 2012, 614). Instead, as these images make clear, health and well-being in the context of child protection should be understood as closely linked and complementary concepts, as ‘the factors that compromise health and well-being in children overlap considerably’ (Moore and Oberklaid 2014, 2267).
The multiple facets of ‘child well-being’ and the idea’s breadth and heterogeneity ‘is illustrated in human rights treaties’ like the CRC, which seek to create ‘well-being or opportunities for well-being, referring to the quality of children’s lives economically and emotionally’ (Ben-Arieh et al. 2014, 1). All of these were reflected in the various demands and views my young interlocutors voiced through their photographs. More, the concept of well-being also includes ‘how people function and relate to others, as much as what they have, or how they report their well-being at a single moment in time’ (Streuli, Woodhead, and Camfield 2009, 98). These young people’s visual accounts of these conditions and the relations that enable or disable protection add nuance to the more abstract aspirations found in rights treaties.
The young people’s explanations of their photographs have one thing in common: they emphasise what the children claim as necessary conditions to feel safe and protected. Their insights explain well-being ‘in the positive, constructive sense that the term implies’ (Mathews and Izquierdo 2009, 39) instead of stating certain actions or situations that should be prevented to guarantee their protection, as is mostly done in child protection policies. Thus, the young people’s accounts positively underline those factors they deem crucial to be reinforced and thereby shift the focus from preventing harm to promoting health and care, or general well-being.
In Affliction, Das (2015, 181) suggests that health is now a ‘global public good’. I would argue that children’s well-being – their physical and mental health and the care for them – is turning into a global public good as well, as international organisations like UNICEF or Save the Children have taken major roles in its definition. If public health implies a government’s duty to look after its citizens’ health (Marsland and Prince 2014, 1), ‘child protection’ – or what could also be called ‘public care’ – describes the duty of governments and the international community to cultivate concern regarding their youngest citizens’ overall well-being. If either public health or ‘public care’ is indeed a public good, I suggest that the ‘public’ in the sense of all citizens must be involved in its definition too. Thus, for more ethical paths to protecting children, well-being should be understood beyond policy definitions and its definition should align with what young people describe as centrally important.
My young research participants made a strong point about the need for protecting their well-being in general, instead of their safety from corporal punishment only. This point becomes even clearer if we pair their specific visual claims with the views they expressed in another research task we performed together. Asking them what messages they would have for their parents or the president, if given the opportunity to address them, their responses reflect the breadth of their most fundamental aspirations of doing well in society: ‘Parents should take care of the children [muwatunze] and care for them [muwajali] because they are the nation of tomorrow [taifa la kesho]’, a fourteen-year-old girl explained. The desire that parental and community care assure children’s future well-being was reiterated by many participants, putting a positive focus on parents and guardians as protective forces in children’s lives. A fifteen-year-old boy stressed a similar point: ‘Education is important and can help me in my life. Parents and teachers are important people in society. They make a great contribution [mchango mkubwa] in our everyday lives [maisha ya kila siku] and in our future [maisha ya baadae]’. And this was most directly stated by a thirteen-year-old girl, who demanded: ‘We would like to tell the parents to love [muwapende] and care for [muwajali] children, and to value them [muwathamini] because they are the nation of tomorrow [taifa la kesho]’.
‘My parents should raise me well [wanilee vizuri], should neither make me suffer a lot [wasinitese sana] nor abuse me [wasininyanyase]. This is important in my life’, argued another boy, twelve years old. Just as in the images, the prevention of violence and poverty were common concerns that young people considered important. Their comments reflected the intertwinedness of emotional and economic well-being that applies to children in Zanzibar as elsewhere. Another boy, thirteen, added to this: ‘I would like to tell the president that we students have problems at madrasa. Our trousers get dirty [zinachafuka] because of the bad state of the madrasa. We don’t have desks and I would like it if you could get us some. After all, we are the nation of tomorrow [taifa la kesho]’.
Equally important were children’s demands for upholding religious morality and norms through adequate education and socialisation: ‘My message to all parents is that they shall educate their children in a religious and worldly manner [masomo ya dini na dunia] and raise them well, as the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) has guided us’, a fifteen-year-old boy emphasised.
Children repeatedly described themselves as the ‘nation of tomorrow’ and hence as an integral part of Zanzibari society, one that must be cared for in order to be able to lead the country in the future. It shows that Zanzibari young people seek to maintain the social order by assuring they are treated in ways that allow them to uphold it. Far from being unruly, they also have a clear sense of order and justice that is not actually at variance from adults’ views but in fact continuous with their expectations. Children ask that adults themselves follow the same rules and uphold the same ideals of respect and empathy that they seek to impose on children. In the same way that children care about other children, they demand adults to do the same.
These images and texts show that children’s well-being is inseparable from ‘the notion of childhood and [that] without a clear understanding of what childhood is or views on what it should be, it is not possible to determine what a good childhood should consist of’ (Adams 2013, 525). Large-scale approaches that intend to improve Zanzibari children’s safety in schools and society at large should therefore first understand what it means to be a child and a person. Only based on this understanding will programmes be able to contribute to protecting this state. Otherwise, the concept of child protection itself may be viewed ‘too narrowly, without reference to the meanings of practices for the children’s place and their transitions to adulthood within their societies’ (Boyden, Pankhurst, and Tafere 2012, 521). Ultimately, young people’s knowledge may inform a broader global discussion of children’s perspectives and child protection. Some of the comments my young Zanzibari interlocutors made – such as the need for a clean environment and safe spaces to play – are comments that children anywhere might make. However, some of the other points they bring up – like the importance of religious education and the danger of harmful labour – are less generalizable and more particular to their specific situation in Zanzibar. On the broadest level this shows that policy makers and practitioners need to refrain from proposing that they ‘know best the best interest of the child’, thereby denying young people their ‘right to participate in the structuring of their childhoods’ (Mayall 2011, 431). Children’s perspectives offer invaluable insights that should be included in attempts to understand and improve the struggles they face, and preferably taken as points of departure.
Any treatment – whether of an illness or of a practice conceptualized as such – should always be ‘embedded in people’s social lives in order to work’ (Beckmann 2012, 706). As I have shown, child protection, as a concept and a practice, is multilayered and determined by many factors – much like health. As the young people’s accounts show clearly, a ‘too uniform and unilateral diagnosis’ of the causes of risks that affect children – as is often made in development programmes that aim to improve children’s lives – therefore remains unhelpful (Biehl and Petryna 2013, 14).
Working with a visual ethnographic approach to explore what protection and safety meant to Zanzibari children eventually reflected what John Berger (1972, 7) once put so aptly: ‘seeing comes before words’ and that ‘the child looks and recognizes before it can speak’. Many of the observations that my young interlocutors struggled to put into words were expressed with less hesitation and without the constraints of language through photography. While the children I worked with were well aware of many challenges related to safety and protection in their daily lives, and understood the concept in the broadest sense possible, this did not immediately put them in a position to speak about these matters openly. Working with images, my young research participants were able to phrase in creative and more indirect terms their demands for protection.
Not just ‘looking at’ but also ‘seeing beyond’ young people’s images – by considering both what they show us and what they say – could ultimately help improve child protection mechanisms in Zanzibar and elsewhere. Understanding their potential meanings beyond what they immediately display may help child protection policy makers and practitioners understand how children in Zanzibar conceptualize a world that feels safe to them in their own terms. The situations and spaces the young people prioritised in their photographs emphasise that we need to see beyond a static and exclusive policy category of child protection. They suggest that to guarantee child well-being, ‘protection must be broader than simply protection from particular risks, and take in protection of opportunities’ (Bourdillon 2014, 497). Zanzibari children’s and adults’ needs to flourish should play a central role herein.
Children should be recognized as diagnosticians in discussions of their own well-being. Doing so may lead to more robust child protection approaches instead of those that rely on single-issue ‘treatments’, like those aiming to abolish corporal punishment, which will inevitably end up neglecting areas that may be of higher concern to the young people they address.
I am indebted to the young people who participated in the photovoice workshops and who were willing to share their perspectives with me.
About the author
Franziska Fay received a PhD in Social Anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Her research focuses on childhood and youth, Islam, education, and reform movements in Swahili-speaking societies across the Western Indian Ocean world (especially Zanzibar and Oman). She is currently Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Cluster of Excellence ‘Normative Orders’ and is affiliated with the Frankfurt Research Center on Global Islam, Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany. She has also worked as a Swahili teacher and as a consultant for Save the Children and the German Development Cooperation.
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