This article draws on empirical research to develop understandings of child prostitution, previously theorised on the basis of children’s rights, feminist, and structure/agency debates, largely ignoring children’s own understandings of their involvement in prostitution. Conducted in Malawi, which is one of the economically poorest countries in the world, the study goes to the heart of questions of inequality and child protection. Within a participatory research framework, nineteen girls and young women used visual methods to generate images representing their experiences of prostitution. Individual and group discussions were used to illuminate the meanings and significance of their images. With the exception of the youngest, participants understood their initial involvement in prostitution as a means of survival in the face of poverty and/or parental death, or escape from violent relationships, experiences that were subsequently mirrored by exploitation and violence within prostitution. Using the lens of the capability approach, we capture the complexity of child prostitution, demonstrating the ambiguous agency of participants in the face of deeply embedded patriarchal cultural norms that constrained their choices and limited their freedom to pursue valued lives. We end by reflecting critically on the theoretical and methodological contributions of the study, making policy and practice recommendations and identifying opportunities for further research.
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