In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section South Asia

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Gender and Childhoods
  • Child Labor and Working Children
  • Childhoods and Violence
  • Childhoods and the Politics of Development

Childhood Studies South Asia
Sarada Balagopalan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0068


The lives of children in South Asia are often an object of academic interest because of concerns relating to child labor, trafficking in children, street children, and child soldiers, to name a few. This particular framing of children’s lives means that any discussion on childhoods in South Asia cannot avoid the world of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), international donors, and government drafting of policies and legislation. Research that documents efforts to improve the lives of children in the region has an important role to play, but often empirical reports that juxtapose harsh lives against the failure of existing policies are unable to provide a more context-sensitive reading of the issue at hand. By context-sensitive is meant not only a methodological shift from quantitative or data analysis to a more qualitative reading of children’s lives, as the latter by now forms part of the methodology of most NGO case studies. Rather, what is being referred to here by “context-sensitive” is a historically contingent reading of children’s lives. This was the shift signaled by the “multiple childhoods” framework and its focus on ethnographic research. Dense ethnographies on childhoods in South Asia, which are mostly on India, have helped deconstruct the perils of “child labor” by reading this through children’s desire to help, to be engaged and contribute to their families. But this often fails to include and provide a sense of the historical context of children’s lives in South Asia. The colonial past that this region shares means that its contemporary landscape continues to bear strong traces of this past, and the lives of children are particularly affected by this. Both institutional spaces and practices like the school and the juvenile reformatory and the ways in which the colonial state formalized its constructions and representations of particular communities through lasting technologies like the census and the survey have a bearing on the contemporary lives of children. The importance of including a historical perspective in studying present-day South Asia has been highlighted in the work of postcolonial scholars. They have often used a reading of the colonial past as a vantage point to locate the failure to mimic the West within a more politicized reading of multiple modernities rather than as a “lack.” In this annotated bibliography, the crucial role played by the colonial past has been included in order to help the researcher gain a sense of the larger theoretical concerns that bear upon the study of children’s lives in South Asia. Often this postcolonial scholarship is not directly on childhoods or children, but its insights are of import to the ways in which we frame our research questions as well as analyze these lives. A terrain that more directly relates to children is that of schooling, and in this bibliography a greater emphasis has been placed on this, both historically as well as in terms of the present, since this is often presented as the antidote to the harsh lives that children are viewed as leading. Academic writings on children in South Asia are few, and this bibliography has tried to be creative in its expansive understanding of theoretical writings and works that can contribute to understanding children’s lives. Unfortunately, the bulk of writings and research have an Indian focus, which is a more general reflection on the state of academic research in and on South Asia.

General Overviews

These edited volumes cover a range of issues, including ethnographic research on children’s lives, childhood and the law, education as an important terrain of social change in the region, and a historical analysis of colonial efforts to civilize native populations. Each of these volumes provides a distinct entry point to understanding children’s lives in the region, and though essays on India form the bulk of each of the books, there is enough within each to provide the reader with a comparative reading of the differences and similarities that characterize the region. Behera 2007 attends to children’s everyday lives across a variety of contexts, while Goonesekere 1998 views the legal sphere as offering a window into understanding cultural constructions around children and Pattnaik 2005 has a more restricted view of policy and issues affecting children. In contrast to the present focus of these two books, Kumar and Osterheld 2007 and Watt and Mann 2011 foreground the crucial role exercised by the colonial past on the spheres of education and the voluntary sector. In terms of methodology to be used while researching children, Waterson and Behera 2011 discusses facilitating children’s voices through ethnography.

  • Behera, Deepak, ed. Childhoods in South Asia. Delhi: Pearson Longman, 2007.

    Though the introduction unreflexively reinforces a bourgeois childhood as normative, the bulk of the essays are rich with insight on children’s sociocultural worlds. In particular, essays by Jane Dyson, Georg Pfeffer, Gabriele Alex, and Brian Milne explore, through different points of entry, the lives of children who work without interrogating these from a normative standpoint.

  • Goonesekere, Savitri. Children, Law and Justice: A South Asian Perspective. New Delhi: Sage, 1998.

    A UNICEF-mediated policy reading of children’s rights, this book provides a policy-focused exploration of “provision, protection and participation,” viewing these as a highly desirable standard necessary for the “harsh context” in South Asia. The impact of English law (i.e., colonialism) is quite uncomplicatedly invoked as that which will facilitate the implementation of the UNCRC within domestic legislation, including producing a legal climate supportive of children’s rights.

  • Kumar, Krishna, and Joachim Oesterheld, eds. Education and Social Change in South Asia. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2007.

    These essays include articles on nation building and the role of education in Pakistan and Nepal, while that on cultural change has an essay on Bangladesh. The volume contains a vast range of papers that provide historical insights into education and the compulsions of modernity and nationalism. Children’s lives form part of the deliberations of the struggle fought by lower castes, religious groups, and women.

  • Pattnaik, Jyotsna, ed. Childhood in South Asia: A Critical Look at Issues, Policies and Programs. Greenwich, CT: Information Age, 2005.

    Nine articles that focus variously on Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka and issues ranging from child refugees to female education and the impact of political turmoil. Simplistic isolated reading of issues and policy which fails to take into consideration the larger political and historical context and largely frames these countries as inadequately modern.

  • Waterson, Roxana, and Deepak Kumar Behera, eds. “Introduction: Extending Ethnographic Research with Children in the Asia-Pacific Region.” In Special Issue: Research with Children in Asia-Pacific Societies. Edited by Roxana Waterson and Deepak Kumar Behera. The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 12.5 (2011): 411–425.

    DOI: 10.1080/14442213.2011.611163

    The article foregrounds ethnographic research as best positioned to facilitate children’s expression of opinions on various issues that affect them. Interesting in the emphasis it places on researching children in the Asia Pacific, though simplistic in its reading of children’s “voices,” To the latter is ascribed an unmediated truth-like quality, rather than their being seen as filtered through larger historical and cultural contexts and the performativity that fieldwork produces.

  • Watt, Carey A., and Michel Mann, eds. Civilizing Missions in Colonial and Postcolonial South Asia: From Improvement to Development. London: Anthem, 2011.

    This collection of essays, focused on voluntary organizations, understands these as institutions and movements that have left a lasting imprint on practices and imaginations in contemporary South Asia. It contains interesting articles on the work of missionaries, the Salvation Army and indigenous religious organizations, transformations made to indigenous schools, the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, and female infanticide in British India.

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