The Child as Vulnerable Victim: Humanitarianism Constructs Its Object

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Over the last one hundred years, humanitarian agencies have considered children primarily through the lens of vulnerability. Advocacy for attention to children’s agency and for their par-ticipation has burgeoned since the 1980s without shifting the powerful hold that assumptions of vulnerability have had over the policy and practices of humanitarians. This article seeks to de-naturalise the conceptualisation of children in contexts of emergency as primarily vulnerable (would-be) victims, placing it in historical and geopolitical contexts. It offers a critical analysis of both conventional humanitarian thinking about vulnerability per se and the reasons for its con-tinued invocation in settings of displacement and political violence. Drawing upon examples from the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule in 1950s Kenya, and current humani-tarian response to the situation of Palestinian children living under Israeli occupation, this article relates the continued dominance of the vulnerability paradigm to the pursuit of self-interest by elites and the survival strategies of humanitarian agencies. It pays particular attention to the uses to which mental health thinking and programming is put in what may be called the ‘politics of pathologisation’.
Original languageEnglish
Article number5102
JournalInternational Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 14 Mar 2023


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