Colonial modernity and the ‘child figure’
The emergence of ‘childhood studies’ as an interdisciplinary field of enquiry in the early 1990s helped draw new attention to children’s everyday lives in contemporary South Asia. Its focus on children’s understandings of their lives, the recognition that children are not only acted upon but are capable of exercising ‘agency’, helped frame childhood as culturally constructed. ‘Multiple childhoods’ emerged as a key non-judgmental interpretive framework within which to locate children’s lives in distinct cultural contexts. This disinterested recognition of multiplicity was significant as this interdisciplinary field had to contend with the parallel rise of a more determinate and normative ‘child figure’. This figure underlay dominant international policy discourse on children, particularly after the widespread ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). This tension between the density of particular cultural contexts – as signalled by ‘multiple childhoods’ and the more regulative norm of a singular childhood that is part of policy-setting around children – has not only divided scholarship but has often worked gratuitously to simplify prevailing understandings of children’s lives in South Asia and elsewhere in the global South. This chapter’s effort is to disentangle the authoritative web of cultural representations as well as the truth effects of policy discourse, by disclosing these opposite formulations as complexly interconnected.