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Ajwang Warria,
Senior Lecturer, Social Work, University of the Witwatersrand


Cyndirela Chadambuka, , Doctoral student, Social Work, University of the Witwatersrand

Social norms and child trafficking: A springboard for social workers to facilitate community-based child protection interventions

Violence against children is a threat and it poses major challenges to the advancement of children’s wellbeing and their development. Social norms-facilitated trafficking is a child rights violation that goes beyond cultural and socio-economic positions. According to the United Nations (UN) Trafficking Protocol (2000), child trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, and receipt of children for exploitation (e.g. sexual, labour, domestic work, illegal abortion, marriage, farm work, begging). It is a spatially complex phenomenon embedded in socio-cultural relations with varied manifestations. The Protocol also highlights that a child cannot give valid consent in any exploitation-related situation. Descriptive or injunctive social norms which might influence child trafficking are collective views “about others that exist within social groups and are maintained through group approval and disapproval” (Lilleston et al., 2017, p. 123). Although social norms do not always reflect reality, they can influence perceived trafficking-related behaviour, values and attitudes, and beliefs. Previous studies have highlighted links between social norms and child trafficking, although there is still a dearth of information (Msuya, 2017), especially from a social work perspective. Thus, social work, as a professional discipline, needs to critically reflect on, and engage with the nexus between social norms and child trafficking thoroughly.

This article links harmful social norms and child trafficking. It further builds on analysis of abuse of African tradition and culture (e.g. by Msuya, 2017) as an underlying root cause of child trafficking and violence against children. In addition, it contributes to on-going conversations, debates and reflections on norms and child protection. It does not claim to be an exhaustive review of evidence, and although the methodology is based on desktop reviews, it was not systematic in nature. This article is also not an attempt to silence perspectives of girls or community members or to excuse perpetrators. We provide a brief overview of the legal framework and practical and theoretical ties concerning social norms and child trafficking. It also highlights rights violations and stresses that intervention programmes must be accountable and responsive to the specific community’s needs, wisdom and assets.

Brief overview of legal instruments

International legal conventions have been adopted to combat trafficking. For example, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) calls for the rejection of customary practices that support stereotyped and role differentiation, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) also guarantees children’s rights and protection from violence. According to the UNCRC, the following children’s rights are violated during trafficking: right to life, survival and development, protection, participation and information. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Target 5.3 (i.e. eliminate all harmful practices) and Target 16.2 (i.e. end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children) support combating trafficking and harmful practices that impact children. Select regional and sub- regional instruments that provide provisions for addressing child trafficking include the African Charter on the Right and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), Maputo Protocol, Ouagadougou Action Plan and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) Regional Plan of Action on Trafficking in Persons (Warria, 2013). These legal instruments call for rights-based approaches which require developing interventions from a rights perspective to ensure that the rights of trafficked children and those vulnerable to trafficking are fulfilled.

Different African countries have dual legal systems which acknowledge both statutory and customary laws. These norms do not exist in a vacuum but within dual legal systems, and are shaped by greater ecological forces such as policy, culture or religion. According to Msuya (2017, p. 3), culture is a social construct and therefore “it does not exist independently of the people who construct it.” Norms which do not confer status on women and girls and support gender discrimination and inequalities impact children’s rights and well-being. Practitioners and community members should examine if, how and when traditional practices impact children’s rights. Indeed, the gauge for valuation of cultural practices should be rights-based (Martin & Mbambo, 2011).

Child trafficking, social norms and the socio-ecological model

Social work supports the person-in-environment framework and acknowledges that the environment is critical to a person’s existence, functioning and survival. Regardless of the type of exploitation experienced by children who are trafficked, violence related to child trafficking is a social challenge that is embedded within the broader social ecology (Lilleston et al., 2017). Thus, the socio-ecological model provides a framework for understanding how a child’s development and wellbeing is nested within multiple levels - i.e. individual, inter-personal, family, community and societal. Compliance with social norms can ensure an individual’s (or their family’s) survival, success and progress (Msuya, 2017). According to Lilleston et al., (2017, p. 123), social norms are an essential element within this ecology and they can prevent, reduce or perpetuate child trafficking. This fits in with the notion that influences and shifts at any level and any time can lead to an increase or decrease in victimization or perpetration (Lyles, Cohen & Brown, 2009).

This article calls for a shift from individuals to environments as environmental mechanisms influence individual behavioural outcomes. The cultural complexities associated with child trafficking call for the development of socially innovative interventions tailored to encourage ideological shifts and to embrace and promote ethically acceptable and protective norms. This is because in ecological-based interventions power inequities and imbalances can be negotiated, the spirit of listening created, and informal social networks endorsed. Community-based and led approaches are a crucial step towards the implementation of transformational processes which support sustainability and the SDG’s (Wessells, 2018). There is need to think out of the box and to have interventions that not only address signs and symptoms but also tackle social rights and the deeply engrained root causes and systems. Indeed, failure to detect, acknowledge and address the underlying causes emanating from socio-cultural complexities undermine the process of fighting child trafficking.

Norms which overlook childhood violence may be publicly or tacitly shared by professionals tasked to assist victims and protect children. This element of cultural acceptability does not diminish the effect for the child victims. Furthermore, social workers should guard against their attitudes and perceptions as what they might think is (dys)functional (re)produces normative discourses which subsequently influence client systems and can become set social constructions in communities (Hochfeld, 2008, p. 95).

The relationship between social norms and child trafficking

The damaging norms that contribute to trafficking can be categorized as:

Norms are determinants of behaviours. If trafficking is tolerated by the community, it will occur and with more frequency and potency. Therefore, based on the above select examples, violence may be a common childhood experience which subsequently feeds into trafficking risks, and the socio-cultural contexts set the framework for development (or exploitation).

Implications for a social work community- based child protection intervention

When African cultural practices are romanticized, this leads to a powerful disservice to African women and girls through their exclusion from sites and positions of power (Hochfeld, 2008). Community-based interventions are not one-size-fits all and they cannot be governed by a set of guidelines, checklist or set of steps to be followed. It is vital for practitioners to build on community assets and start where the communities are i.e. “bottom up” community child protection interventions. Interventions should be grounded in community needs, resilience, power and assets by tapping into local wisdom(s) and local priorities and be carefully linked to collective action. The social worker as the facilitator (not an expert) is there to learn, ask questions, invite dialogue, support conditions conducive to full participation, discuss different options, decisions and actions - i.e. accompanying or walking with the community, not guiding it (Wessells, 2018, p. 33).

According to Msuya (2017, p. 29), “culture is value-driven and helps to maintain values, structure, and unity within a society, but it can never and should never supersede the law or a person’s humanity and individual autonomy ... or be used as an excuse to violate a person’s alienable human rights.” If a positive practice shifts to harm children, there is need for dialogue to start understanding the shifting function of the specific norm and the (emerging) needs of that community regarding the practice. This calls for a humble orientation while one elicits inclusive dialogue and deeper listening, and provides psychosocial and cultural spaces conducive to engagement, mobilization and collective decision- making. Harnessing people’s power is in line with Paulo Freire’s writing, which emphasizes dignity, agency and voice, which in turn leads to the establishment of meaningful, long-term, trust-based, reciprocal relationships which nurture organic change.

Based on the schema change approach and informed by the diffusion of innovations theory, the delivery of counter evidence on norms and child trafficking, e.g. through influential leaders, can change socially shared beliefs and thus shift people’s perceptions through the introduction of new ideas and presentation of alternative norms (Lilleston et al., 2017, p. 126). Children themselves can also be key influencers of social norms through social networks and social media and in a way they will be incorporating aspects of bystander interventions. The nudge theory advocates making insignificant changes within an environment which then push community members towards more preferred behaviours without restricting their choices (Lilleston et al., 2017, p. 128). For example, trained community workers and social workers genuinely engage with families to understand their situation and address at- risk factors and reduce household poverty which in turn changes views about trafficking girls.

Customary laws and practices have fundamental child protection aspects as well and are protective of children (Martin & Mbambo, 2011; Msuya, 2017). The positive customary practices, values and norms that promote children’s rights, care and protection should be preserved, encouraged and promoted. In a way, the practitioner will be encouraging the mobilization of community values by including existing core (positive) values already being shared in the community.

Social work interventions should consider the importance of socio-cultural, economic and political contexts (Warria, 2013). Furthermore, there is a need to recognize the political will and also the relationship between differing cultural root values and underlying social norms e.g. honour, bad luck/omens, kinship ties, social positioning in the community and the benefits gained. Narrative methods can assist with capturing local idioms and meanings as the value of language and community members as narrators and meaning- makers is acknowledged (Wessells, 2018). Their stories provide rich information about values, challenges and uncertainties, opinions, and understanding of their social world, socio-cultural rights and positioning. Through the use of probing and follow-up discussions, further clarification of concepts is reached, rich insights are realized and a common understanding is achieved.

According to Hochfeld (2008, p. 102), social workers should constantly reflexively negotiate their own ideals, their clients’ authentic experiences and expectations, cultural imperatives and the actual contexts and question how their own cultural experiences impact service delivery. Ultimately, social workers should work with clients collaboratively in the (re- )constructions of meanings associated with social norms and practices and trafficking vulnerability. Wessells (2018) supports this reflexive, self-critical approach to internalizing sustainable shifts.


Childhood violence remains a threat to children’s wellbeing and rights. Social norms are drivers and maintainers of child trafficking and they should form a core part of any intervention. Norms vary according to context, and thus communities require spaces where they can develop their own ways of working and interventions that fit their contexts, and this short discussion provided suggestions towards this.

There are more issues and questions on social norms and child trafficking that need additional investigation, and this discussion dealt with only some of the important debates. The nexus between social norms and children’s rights is filled with tension and resistance, but there are some strides that can be made. What is also certain is that social workers can protect children in communities where social norms and practices are tolerated, deeply entrenched and practised.


Hochfeld, T. (2008). Influencing ... it is our role, it is our duty”: How social workers unintentionally reinforce conservative ideas on the family. Agenda, 76, 92-104.
Lilleston, P.S., Goldmann, L., Verma, R.K. & McCleary-Sills, J. (2017). Understanding social norms and violence in childhood: Theoretical underpinnings and strategies for intervention. Psychology, Health & Medicine, 22, 1, 122-134.
Lyles, A., Cohen, L. & Brown, M. (2009). Transforming communities to prevent child sexual abuse and exploitation: A primary prevention approach. Oakland: Prevention Institute.
Martin, P. & Mbambo, B. (2011). An exploratory study on the interplay between African customary law and practices and children’s protection in South Africa. Pretoria: Save the Children.
Msuya, N.H. (2017). Tradition and culture in Africa: Practices that facilitate trafficking of women and children. Dignity, 2, 1, Article 3. DOI: 10.23860/dignity.2017.02. 01.03.
Warria, A. (2013). Analyzing South Africa’s legislative measures to protect trafficked children: A social work perspective. Social Work Researcher- Practitioner, 25, 1, 36-58.
Warria, A. (2017). Forced child marriages as a form of trafficking. Children and Youth Services Review, 79, 274-279
Wessells, M.G. (2018). A guide for supporting community-led child protection processes. Child Resilience Alliance.