While the historical role of children and notions of childhood in times of war and crises generally constituted an important theme at the Ninth Biennial Conference of the Society for the History of Childhood and Youth (SHCY), one panel was explicitly dedicated to the study of international humanitarianism and attempts to protect children in the transition between war and peace. The panel was organized by Yukako Otori (Harvard University) and Andrée-Ann Plourde (Laval University) and included presenters that had first met in the framework of the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy (GHRA). The panel, which was chaired by the distinguished historian of international child welfare and author of Raising the World: Child Welfare in the American Century (Harvard University Press, 2015) Sara Fieldston, explored the intersection of international attempts to protect children and the history of humanitarianism on the basis of four case studies.
Opening the panel was historian of Africa Stacey Hynd (Exeter University) who discussed the construction of the “child soldier” in the second half of the twentieth century. Presenting rich examples from the involvement of children in armed conflict from the 1950s (the Mau Mau rebellion) to discussions in the United Nations in the mid-1990s, she, firstly, showed how child soldiering was gradually constructed as an African phenomenon. Secondly, tracing how legal, human rights and humanitarian discourses and norms discursively produced the image of the “child soldier”, Hynd argued that it was precisely the divergence of this image from the actual experiences of children actively involved in war that ultimately limited the effectiveness of humanitarian intervention. The intersection of humanitarian campaigning and international legislative efforts also constituted a major theme in the second presentation by Yukako Otori. Exploring the making of international child labor law in the interwar years, Otori not only traced the emergence of a set of conventions against child labor issued by the International Labor Conference, the highest legislative organ of the International Labor Organization (ILO), but also pointed to the limited effectiveness of these conventions when it came to the ratification and enforcement by the individual member states. Yet, as she pointed out, the legislative efforts of the 1920s nonetheless produced significant shifts in the understanding of child labor, which was marked by a growing sensitivity towards non-industrial labor as well as long-terms negative effects such as for instance interrupted schooling. Continue reading