Borrowed Children, Entrusted Girls: Legal Encounters with Girlhood in French West Africa, c. 1900 - 1941 Open Access

Reuther, Jessica Catherine (2016)

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In the colony of Dahomey, the modern-day Republic of Benin, French colonial laws and West African societies interacted in unpredictable ways which altered girls' vulnerability to labor exploitation and sexual abuse. In contrast to recent scholarship focusing on twentieth century efforts to "modernize" girlhood elsewhere in Africa, this dissertation shows that Dahomeans strove to find new ways to regulate the "traditional" girlhood norms of child circulation, girl hawkers, and vodun initiation within the evolving colonial legal framework of the 1920s through 1940s. The colonial tribunal operated as a cross cultural space where a masculine audience of indigenous assessors and French administrators interpreted girls' narrations of abuse through the filters of both Dahomean ideas about proper female maturation and European stereotypes of African femininity. This dissertation is a socio-legal history of girlhood in colonial Dahomey during the first half of the twentieth century. The nearly two hundred cartons of remaining legal documents from colonial Dahomey contained in the National Archives of Benin and Senegal for the 1920s-1950s reveal that diverse groups of actors, including market women, customary chiefs, junior men, lineage heads, vodun spiritual leaders, and parents sought to protect and expand their own abilities to use girls as a means upon which to build economic wealth, social prestige, and political power. Juridical records, newspapers, ethnographies, official inquiries, and oral interviews all demonstrate that in Dahomey, colonialism reshaped traditional girlhood norms. This dissertation analyzes how Dahomeans defended practices of entrusting girls to households as laborers and to cult-houses as initiates. In doing so, Dahomeans rejected aspirations to a model of "modern" girlhood dominated by nuclear families and school going. By examining girlhood as an identity formulated in colonial legal arenas during a foundational moment in both the international children's rights and women's rights movements this dissertation provides new insights into how Africans, though largely silent and absent in international forums, expressed and enacted dissenting viewpoints on developing global consensuses about ideals of childhood and gender.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter One: Entrusted or Enslaved?: The Ambiguities of Girls' Dependence and Women's Independence 28

Chapter Two: Institutions and Individuals: Chiefs' Changing Roles in Colonial Tribunals 64

Chapter Three: Working Girls: Petites Vendeuses and Sexual Assault in Colonial Streets 91

Chapter Four: Trust Betrayed: Secrecy and Sex in Vodun Cult-Houses 126

Chapter Five: The Dreyfus Affair of Dahomey: A Pawned Girl and the Politics of the Mono Region 163

Chapter Six: Borrowing A Child, Getting Ahead: Télé Acapovi and Household Strategies in Abomey 193

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