Hawking or Street Walking? Petites Vendeuses and Sexual Assault in French West Africa, 1920s–40s
The criminal tribunal records for Dahomey for the period 1931 to 1944 offer a unique amount of data concerning the colonial administration’s stereotyping of African pre-teen and teenage vendors’ promiscuity. This period marks the high water mark of judicial oversight where local tribunal records were regularly forwarded to both Dakar and Porto-Novo. Secondly, Dahomey had a disproportionately large amount of rape cases brought before colonial tribunals in comparison to other colonies in the French West Africa Federation. The majority of these cases could be termed “statutory rape” or rape of a minor child. Minority or girlhood was one of the decisive issues debated in colonial tribunals. I argue that the 3 December 1931 decree redefined rape as a crime prosecutable in colonial tribunals only when the victims were young female children who were not suspected of prior sexual experience. From 1932 onward, any suspicion of sexual experience transformed rape to a lesser crime or dismissed the charge entirely. Sexuality became one characteristic which separated female childhood from adulthood. Girls became “women” once they engaged in sexual acts.
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