In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Child Trafficking and Slavery

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Research Methods and Ethics

Childhood Studies Child Trafficking and Slavery
Neil Howard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0227


“Child trafficking” began its career as a core international child protection issue in the late 1990s. It emerged from the union of the anti–child labor and anti–sex trafficking movements, which both underwent a resurgence at that time and paralleled a rise in focus on the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Since around 2005, trafficking has been joined by “child slavery,” which contemporary abolitionists argue is a subset of the “modern-day slavery” that they claim blights the global economy. Child trafficking and child slavery have thus become twin issues, enshrined in—and targeted for eradication by—the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Conceptually, each issue is understood and constructed within mainstream media and political discourse as a matter of innocents being kidnapped and enslaved by criminal exploiters or sold by their poverty-stricken/“culturally backward” parents. The conventional policy approaches with which this discourse is associated thus tend toward the draconian, replicating the aggressive yet depoliticizing efforts of those who wish to outlaw child labor and (adult or child) prostitution. Scholars and critical practitioners from all continents have pushed back, arguing that discourse is as problematic and reductive as policy is misguided and ineffective. Criticism has targeted the unsophisticated, at times racist nature of many mainstream representations, as well as the damaging, unintended consequences of top-down policy and project interventions. Many have focused on documenting children’s agency amidst their structural constraints, including the consent that they offer for their work, even where that work is labeled as trafficking or slavery. Others have sought to situate this work within its sociocultural contexts. A small handful of scholars have gone inside the discursive and policy regime in order to understand and map how policymakers think and act around these issues. Considerable differences exist between researchers who have conducted empirical research with children labeled as slaves or victims of trafficking and those who examine these issues from a more bird’s-eye perspective. Naturally, there is great overlap between those who examine related issues—such as child labor, child sexual exploitation, modern slavery, or adult sex trafficking. Nevertheless, given the policy, institutional, and discursive overlaps between child trafficking and slavery and child labor, many of the texts cited will be drawn from literature that straddles both topics.

General Overviews

No single text offers a full overview of the many approaches to studying child trafficking and slavery or the construction and governance of these as social problematics. By contrast, the cited texts, taken together, offer a solid general overview of the field. These texts include empirical studies with children, their families, and policymakers. Hilowitz 2003 is a worthwhile annotated text that contains several studies on bonded child labor. Dottridge and Jordan 2012 explicitly addresses the conceptual-legal overlap between child labor and child trafficking/slavery (and criticizes the tendency to categorize cases of “mere” child labor as trafficking or slavery). Craig 2010 is a good example of mainstream discourse around this issue; the other three texts are essential rejoinders.

  • Bourdillon, M., D. Levison, W. Myers, and B. White. Rights and Wrongs of Children’s Work. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011.

    The definitive work for understanding the major debates around child labor, which map directly onto trafficking and slavery. Each of the authors has over four decades of experience researching these issues, and the book consequently draws on a wealth of empirical examples to argue against the mainstream “abolitionist” standpoint.

  • Craig, G., ed. Child Slavery Now: A Contemporary Reader. Bristol, UK: Policy Press, 2010.

    An edited volume that brings together contributions from researchers and senior practitioners in the field, this collection is representative of prevailing media and policy discourses around trafficking and slavery. Has been widely critiqued by scholars who have conducted empirical work with children labeled as victims of trafficking.

  • Dottridge, M., and A. Jordan. Children, Adolescents and Human Trafficking: Making Sense of a Complex Problem. Issue Paper 5, May 2012. Washington, DC: Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, American University Washington College of Law, 2012.

    An important critical text that unpacks some of the conceptual and legal knots surrounding this and related issues, published by two of the established critical voices in the field.

  • Hashim, I., and D. Thorsen. Child Migration in Africa. Uppsala, Sweden: Nordic Africa Institute, 2011.

    Many scholars have conducted empirical research on child and youth migration, from which they have argued that anti-trafficking discourses simplify complex realities and deny children (and their communities) agency. Bringing together studies from across Africa, this is the primary empirically informed counterweight to mainstream discourses.

  • Hilowitz, J. Annotated Bibliography on Child Labour. Geneva, Switzerland: ILO-IPEC, 2003.

    An annotated bibliography put together by the International Labour Organisation’s Programme to Eliminate Child Labour, this contains many references (some of questionable quality) to trafficking- or slavery-related work.

  • Howard, N. Child Trafficking, Youth Labour Mobility and the Politics of Protection. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1057/978-1-137-47818-4

    To date, the only empirical study to have combined research with both apparent victims of child trafficking and anti-traffickers. The book offers a field-wide analysis of anti–child trafficking/slavery, uncovering the ideological and material power relations governing what it does, why this fails, and what could be done differently.

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