Children in between : child rights and child placement in Sri Lanka
This thesis examines the appropriateness of the use of rights based strategies in meeting children's needs. In an era of proliferating international conventions this is an issue that demands further debate. The starting point of the thesis is the way that rights talk about children. It is suggested that ideas of difference are integral to child rights. Needs and rights are attributed on the basis of difference. The difference between children and adults is defined and informed by the scientifically based discourse of child development, on which a prescriptive model of childhood is built. Difference also structures the relationship between child rights and other cultural norms of childhood. Rights make claims to a universal application. Other constructions of childhood are redefined as local, and required to fit into the rights framework, or delegitimised. Developing these points it is asked whether rights, as an internationally dominant discourse, can succeed in accommodating rather than excluding difference, since the process of exclusion involves an operation of power which serves to reinforce the status quo. This is a problem that is recognised in some theoretical perspectives (although only rarely applied to child rights). The response is usually in terms of restating universal claims, or advocating some form of cultural relativism. This thesis leans in favour of the latter. However, it also departs somewhat from this dichotomy, and argues, relying on ideas of chaos and complexity, that child rights need to be reworked. Two distinct approaches are suggested: either the recognition of radical, incommensurable difference, in which there can at best be convergence under a limited overarching framework of values; or the removal of difference as a structuring concept. The argument is elaborated through a detailed analysis, structured by theories of globalisation, of the interaction between the dominant rights discourse of childhood, and alternative conceptions of childhood in Sri Lanka. The analysis is based on field research, in which the response of the child care authorities to the practice of child placement was investigated, as was the impact on children and families of their responses. This investigation involved one of the only pieces of empirical research yet done in Sri Lanka, on either the juvenile courts, or on child placement and domestic service. The findings supported the conclusion that in order to be able to embrace complexity, and empower children, child rights need to be rethought.