Hawking or Street Walking? Petites Vendeuses and Sexual Assault in French West Africa, 1920s–40s

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 10:50 AM
Empire Ballroom West (Sheraton New York)
Jessica Reuther, Emory University
Petites vendeuses, or female children engaged in selling goods door-to-door, represent a large proportion of the victims of rape and indecent assault cases brought before the first and second degree colonial tribunals in Dahomey, modern-day Benin. Tribunal officials’ attitudes legitimated girls “working” the streets through their acceptance of the practice despite child labor laws passed in 1936.  The views expressed in the tribunals’ debates about whether to prosecute, dismiss or acquit accused perpetrators centered around the victim’s girlhood based on her sexual inexperience.  Tribunals deemed sexual encounters between girl vendors and their customers as consensual unless the girl could medically verify her prior virginity or find witnesses to testify to her non-consent of the act.        

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.