The UN’s recent reports on the treatment of children in Syria and in the Roman Catholic Church revealed some of the despicable acts committed against boys that are part of a disturbing and hidden global trend.
They are the forgotten many. The afterthought. The tacked-on obligatory mention at the end of a sentence, if that. Some university classes on human trafficking fail to mention them alongside “girls and women” in their syllabi. But there they are being used as soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo and as slaves in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan, the shipbreaking yards of Bangladesh, the farmlands of Florida and the fishing villages of Ghana. And there they are, as detailed in recent reports from the UN, being used as human shields in Syria and as sex slaves in the Roman Catholic Church. Can we talk about this now? Is it okay to talk about this?
Preface: Addressing the disposability of boys is not ignoring or in any way minimizing the appalling situations many of our world’s girls and women are enduring right now. Addressing the disposability of boys is addressing the disposability of boys. There is often hostility when this topic is brought up because there’s the assumption that the speaker is choosing sides. This isn’t a game and there are no sides.
On February 4, 2014 the UN released its first detailed findings on the treatment of children in Syria. The “Report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic” contained text perhaps even more damning due to its comprehensive details than the alleged torture photographs that were released weeks ago and that a team of war crimes prosecutors and forensic experts deemed “direct evidence” of the “systematic torture and killing” by the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. One excerpt on page 4 stated:
“Boys aged 12 to 17 years were trained, armed and used as combatants or to man checkpoints.”
This falls perfectly in line with why boys are often selected around the world for use as slave laborers. Comparatively, boys tend to be more physical, stronger, and more physically aggressive than girls and are therefore more preferred when it comes to the often backbreaking work of slave labor. While some communities have tried to eradicate this notion that boys are more physical and physically aggressive than girls, Dr. Michael Thompson, co-author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, believes the difference is clear but admitted to PBS Parents that he isn’t precisely sure why:
“Why are some young boys more aggressive than girls? We don’t know for sure. We think that boys are predisposed to higher activity levels as a result of androgens (male hormones) inutero. However, it is not, as many people believe, a result of testosterone in the blood, because before puberty, boys and girls have the same level. What we know is that boys in all cultures around the world wrestle more, mock fight more, and are drawn to themes of power and domination, but that’s not the same as hurting someone, so it’s not necessarily a cause for worry.”
Dr. Thompson’s statement about “boys in all cultures of the world” aligns with what I learned about human trafficking during my two and a half years living in and traveling throughout Asia. Whether it was Nepal or the Philippines, Sri Lanka or Myanmar, it was simply more acceptable for boys to perform the most grueling forms of physical labor, especially when it was the kind of labor that may lead to disease or permanent disfigurement.
Some posit that this acceptance is a direct result of how cultures have been socially conditioned to see gender roles due to the way religious attitudes and/or patriarchal cultures have demarcated them. While this influence certainly can carry over into secular societies, it seems there’s a more pervasive form of social conditioning at work; one that views boys, regardless of age, as young men; one that views their more physical behavior as the seed of manhood—a time when, at least conceptually, they’ll no longer be seen as vulnerable and will instead be capable of preying on those who are truly vulnerable. The result? Boys who will be men are judged as though they are men. This is harmful both for boys and for the men who then live under the socially conditioned false narrative that believes they are invulnerable.
Nowhere was this more apparent to me than in the shipbreaking yards of Chittagong, Bangladesh. Security guards dressed in blue leaf camouflage pointed their semi-automatic machine guns directly at me (after making sure I didn’t have a camera, notebook or phone), and I watched in horror as one tiny boy after another dragged their feet through toxic shoreline sludge in order to lift with their bare hands the rusted anchor chains. The black plumed skies lit up red as other boys took turns using the blowtorch. I have no idea if there’s hell in the afterlife but that scene showed me for damn sure that there’s hell in this life.
“Boys don’t grow up into men revered for their beauty,” one villager who lives just outside the yards told me through a translator. This was his response upon my asking where the girls and women were. Rather than say where they were he seemed to take my question as a point of contention, as a matter of pride. My translator later told me that although these men hate their jobs, have seen friends die because of it and know they themselves are dying because of it, they take an incredible amount of pride in it because they see themselves as entirely “expendable,” sacrificing their own life for that of their wife and kids.
ex·pend·a·ble: of little significance when compared to an overall purpose, and therefore able to be abandoned, designed to be used only once and then destroyed, e.g. unstaffed and expendable launch vehicles
Through asking the villager additional questions I learned that the girls and women either stayed home to prepare food for the shipbreakers or, if they were employed, worked as seamstresses, sometimes in Dhaka, a 6-hour bus ride away. These seamstress jobs are essentially slavery as well, but due to international news coverage about collapsing factories (locals wonder if this ever would have made the news had it not been for the fact that these factories produce goods for world-renowned brands) and because more members of the community rallied around the rights of these girls and women, some positive changes were made and others are in progress.
But few rally behind the boys and men. In fact, what I saw at the yards didn’t seem any different from what Gary Cohn and Will Englund described in their 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning series of articles titled The Shipbreakers. The boys and men are expected either to suck it up and find solace in their disposability or rally for themselves which, when they have, often seems to coincide with the time when, as Muhammad Ali Shahin, Program Manager for Advocacy at Young Power in Social Action, told me:
“Dead and non-identified workers…get thrown out to sea, leaving a widow and children with no news and no income.”
Speaking particularly of boys he told me, “They are considered machines; if one dies another will replace him.”
When I told Muhammad what the villager told me about boys growing up, he said:
“That’s right. Men are revered when they are physically strong leaders. And the yard owners pretend this is what they are ‘making’ the boys into. Truth is, they aren’t making them into anything. They are breaking them into pieces.”
dis·pos·a·ble: intended to be used once, or until no longer useful, and then thrown away, e.g. disposable razors. Also: financial assets readily available for the owner’s use
The Syria report also stated that “many boys felt it was their duty” to take up arms. Might some part of this feeling of duty, this willingness to protect, be an intrinsic part of boyhood? Many believe so. In Absent, a documentary about the impact of fatherlessness, John Eldredge, author of the controversial Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul, says:
“Earlier cultures understood that there’s a warrior in the heart of a boy… Boys are wired for adventure, and boys are wired for aggression.”
It was clear that in this context Eldredge was referring to “wiring” of the genetic type. But while every boy is of course an individual and while such generalized statements can certainly be debated, one can make a stronger case by stating that it is perhaps a combination of male genetics and the socially constructed roles we’ve played for thousands of years that have reinforced the male expression of certain aggressive characteristics.
A modern-day application of these ideas shows us that here we are in the 21st century C.E., a time of desk jobs where those qualities of physicality and aggression that have found necessary and healthy outlets for thousands of years have been replaced with sitting all day, an act which men seem particularly maladjusted; a time when even roughhousing with dad is seen as unproductive; a time when boys are increasingly penalized for not being able to sit still throughout an entire school day (and are substantially more often misdiagnosed with ADHD); a time when 43% of children grow up without their father and therefore often without a male role model who they can look up to and say, “Yes, that’s how to channel what I’m feeling.”