Understanding the problem
- Child sexual exploitation is an extreme form of violence against children
- It can leave physical and mental scars that last a lifetime
- It is a gross violation of children’s dignity and fundamental rights
The sexual exploitation of children happens all around the world, but unlike some other social problems, these are crimes that happen in the shadows. There is still very little data available that measures the extent, nature and scope of child sexual exploitation.
To eliminate this crime, action and advocacy must rest on research and solid evidence.
ECPAT works to better understand the many manifestations of child sexual exploitation. We extensively investigate the situation in different countries and regions. Read more about what we learned from our research during 2017-2018.
Ending the online sexual exploitation of children
Digital technology such as phones, social media, livestreaming apps, cloud services and file sharing, crypto currency and the dark net have made it easier for offenders to find victims and likeminded criminals, groom and extort children, document and share child sexual abuse material, remain anonymous and hide profits.
There is an enormous amount of child sexual abuse material on the Internet today. Microsoft estimates that of the billions of images uploaded daily, about 720,000 are of child sexual abuse
With every minute that child sexual abuse material is available online – children’s rights are violated – often thousands of times a day - every time an image is shared or viewed.
At the same time, we are witnessing an increase in the misuse of technology to groom children for sexual purposes, sextortion and self-generated child sexual images.
The ECPAT network works internationally to combat the sexual exploitation of children online. We work with our partners to advocate for stronger legal frameworks; wider deployment of technical tools; raise awareness and build a body of evidence.
In 2018 ECPAT released a comprehensive study on the online sexual exploitation of children that revealed that about 30 percent of online child sexual exploitation material contains boys.
When boys and very young children are sexually exploited online they are more likely to face the most serious and extreme forms of abuse.
Other ECPAT research – a survey of experts, practitioners and law enforcement - that revealed that there has been a reported increase in the severity of abuse portrayed on child abuse materials and its volume in recent years, and most experts feel overwhelmed.
ASEAN action to harmonize regional legislation for preventing and combatting online child sexual exploitation – and agreement to develop an ASEAN Declaration for the Protection of Children from OCSE to be endorsed by the ASEAN Head of States in 2019/2020.
Extent of the risk of online child sexual exploitation revealed
In March 2018, ground-breaking research released by INTERPOL and ECPAT International into the online sexual exploitation of children suggested that when online images or videos of child sexual abuse depict boys or very young children, the abuse is more likely to be severe.
Analysis of Interpol’s database
The research included a visual analysis of a sample of images and videos stored by INTERPOL in the “ICSE Database,” which is an investigative tool containing media seized by law enforcement around the globe and used as evidence in criminal enquiries. Researchers categorized and analyzed its content to better understand patterns of offending and victimization.
More severe abuse to younger children
The study “found a link between the age of the victim and the severity of abuse.” When victims were younger, the abuse was more likely to be extreme. It was also found that very young children were more likely than older victims to be subjected to abuse and exploitation that featured additional “problematic paraphilic themes,” (sexual behaviour that risks causing another person psychological distress, injury, or death).
The researchers made the same link between severity of abuse and gender of the victim.
“Boys made up a significant proportion of victims and videos and images featuring boys were more likely to show severe abuse material that features problematic paraphilic themes.”
INTERPOL honours ECPAT for fighting child sexual exploitation
In November 2017, ECPAT was presented with a prestigious award by the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL).
The “Crimes Against Children” Award from INTERPOL’s Crimes Against Children team recognized the more than two decades that ECPAT has worked to prevent child sexual exploitation and advocate for its victims – particularly through programmes to confront trafficking for sexual purposes; the exploitation of children through prostitution; online child sexual exploitation; and the sexual exploitation of children in the travel and tourism sector.
ECPAT’s work with law enforcement around the globe is a vital part of the fight against the sexual exploitation of children. As well as INTERPOL, we have strong links with EUROPOL, ASEANPOL, and AMERIPOL, as well as multiple national policing agencies. We support capacity development, provide advice and develop cooperative programmes with these valuable partners to tackle child sexual exploitation.
Stopping the sexual exploitation of children by travellers and tourists
The travel and tourism industry today is one of the largest economic sectors in the world. Fueled by cheap flights, globalization and new technology, it is an industry that is expanding at an extraordinary rate and many places that were considered ‘remote’ just a few decades ago have now opened up to visitors.
However, the growth of this industry has not been adequately matched by a growth in measures for child protection. In places like hotels, airports, tourist attractions, restaurants, bars, massage parlours and even on the street in plain view, children are at risk from traveling child sex offenders, who take advantage of poverty, social exclusion and vulnerability to abuse and exploit.
No country or child is immune to this ever-growing risk.
The travel and tourism industry is in a unique position to identify the most vulnerable – and to prevent the sexual exploitation of children. ECPAT works with those in the industry, along with intergovernmental bodies, national governments and civil society organizations committed to eradicating this crime.
Results for the period under review included:
- The creation of a website with resources for those working to end the sexual exploitation of children by travellers and tourists.
- The Code, an ECPAT supported initiative that works with businesses to get them to commit to child protection, grew significantly throughout the period under review:
- More than 570,500 hotel and other tourist facing staff had been trained through The Code in how to recognize and report when they see children in danger of sexual exploitation.
- More than 400 participants from 25 countries met in Bogota and agreed on a long-term agenda to protect children in travel and tourism.
- In 2017 the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly adopted a resolution to protect children from sexual exploitation in travel and tourism. The resolution mandates the AIPA Secretariat to take action on children protection.
International summit: Travel and tourism sector vows to protect children
Representatives of governments, the global tourism business, law enforcement agencies, the UN and civil society gathered in Bogotá Colombia in June 2018 to agree on a long-term agenda that will end the sexual exploitation of children through the travel industry.
At the International Summit on Child Protection in Travel and Tourism, hosted by the Government of Colombia, ECPAT, UNICEF, the World Travel & Tourism Council and UNODC, more than 400 participants from 25 countries signed a declaration pledging to raise awareness about the sexual exploitation of children.
The declaration included how to tackle child trafficking; adhere to codes of conduct; regulate ‘voluntourism’ in institutions where children are present; and increase the training of staff to recognize when children are in danger of being trafficked or sexually exploited.
Those at the summit agreed to a number of practical steps that the UN, NGOs, governments travel businesses and affected communities will implement over the next few years.
In Cambodia, ‘voluntourism’ and tourist boom putting children at risk
ECPAT research released in 2018 warned that despite some improvements in tackling the sexual exploitation of children in recent years, thousands of young Cambodians are still victims of this crime – and most are prevented from speaking up or going to police by a “culture of silence.”
Exacerbating the problem is Cambodia’s tourist boom, fueled by cheap flights, which has now led to the exploitation of children through prostitution all over the country.
The research also highlighted the disturbing trend of “voluntourism” – especially in the country’s orphanages, which now threatens children living in residential care institutions. The proliferation of “voluntourism” seems to have brought with it the unwanted spectre of child sexual exploitation in some areas. There have now been several cases where traveling sex offenders were able to use volunteering at an orphanage as a means for gaining access to victims.
Ending the sexual exploitation of children through trafficking and prostitution
Child trafficking occurs in every region of the world. Victims are often groomed, taken from their protective environment, transported, harboured and abused – with often devastating consequences. Many end up being exploited through prostitution.
There are no exact figures, but according to UNODC almost 80 percent of victims detected are trafficked for sexual exploitation and Worldwide, almost 20 percent of all trafficking victims are children.
Recent humanitarian crises have seen a spike in the number of refugees and a related spike in the number of global trafficking victims. In other parts of the world, the trafficking of children for marriage is a growing concern. For instance, the last few years have seen an increase in the number of Chinese “wedding brokers” crossing the border into north Viet Nam and kidnapping brides – many of whom are under aged.
All countries are a potential as source, transit and destination country for the trafficking of children for sexual purposes.
Worldwide, almost 20 percent of all trafficking victims are children. However, in some parts of Africa and the Mekong region, children are the majority (up to 100% in parts of West Africa).
ECPAT International works internationally and regionally to combat the trafficking of children for sexual purposes and the sexual exploitation of children through prostitution.
In the UK, trafficking victims wait years for support
Trafficking victim Peter came in contact with ECPAT UK after he managed to run away from his traffickers, in desperate need of support and a place to stay. In the UK, the National Referral Mechanism is supposed to help victims of trafficking, but cases are piling up and Peter is still waiting to hear from them.
“It’s horrible. You can’t go forwards, you can’t go backwards. Sometimes you just feel like taking your own life,” says Peter.
South Asia grapples with both ancient and modern types of sexual exploitation
Traditional and emerging forms of sexual exploitation that exist ‘side-by-side’ are putting the children of South Asia at risk, says an ECPAT report released in March 2018.
Combating the sexual exploitation of children in South Asia claims that while the sub-continent has long been a place where the sexual exploitation of children is a serious concern, today, children are more prone to be victimized in both the older offline world, and the newer online world, where there is a continuum of abuse and exploitation, claiming that in some places, “ancient brothels” exist next to children being groomed through their cell phones.
The report, which looked at the situation for children in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, says that in South Asia, early and forced marriage, and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes are established norms in many of these societies. However, today, evolving and emerging forms of sexual exploitation are beginning to increase in prominence.
Conflict in Central African Republic is exacerbating the trafficking of children for sexual purposes
The conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) has made its children extremely vulnerable to being sexually exploited, says ECPAT research released in April 2018.
The CAR Country Overview Report says that the country’s civil conflict, which erupted in 2012 and continues to this day, has exacerbated an already precarious situation for the country’s children, who account for about half of the 4.5 million population.
“The civil war has made children in CAR terribly vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Socio-economic inequalities were already present before the conflict but they have considerably worsened. At the same time, several different groups that would harm children have moved in to abuse and exploit, including belligerents in the conflict and human traffickers.”
- Willy Buloso, Regional Coordinator for ECPAT in Africa.
The Central African Republic was a source, destination and transit country for the trafficking of children even before the conflict. However, children who have been forced from their homes by fighting are now particularly at risk. And with the total number of people displaced increasing by 40 percent between 2016 and 2017, ECPAT’s research says that the country has now become a “breeding ground” for the trafficking of children for sexual purposes.
Extreme poverty and socio-economic disparities have “pushed a lot of children to accept sexual relations in exchange for money or even food.”
The research also reveals that some armed groups have begun forcibly recruiting children as soldiers. Many of these children are then sexually exploited by militia groups. At the same time, the conflict is fueling an increase in child, early and forced marriage in the country. Girls in particular are targeted, and the number of children sexually exploited through prostitution is increasing.
Promoting an enabling legal environment
All countries have an obligation to protect children to the greatest extent possible. Legislation must be written with child protection in mind to legally tackle sexual exploitation and where necessary, compensate and assist victims. However, this is a crime with a strong cross border element which must also be addressed with an up-to-date legal framework.
In order to combat this crime, nations must have laws in place that protect children and countries must work together to understand the problem, report on progress, advocate for reform and ensure that international legal instruments safeguard the vulnerable.
ECPAT works to ensure that national and international laws enable child protection - and countries fulfill their obligations to report on the sexual exploitation of children through the relevant international frameworks. We provide support to countries in developing these reports so they can review the actions they have taken to improve the situation of sexual exploitation of children in their countries, in order to hold leaders accountable, strengthen political will and make future recommendations.
Results for the period under review included:
Supporting 15 countries to make reports to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography (OPSC).
Supporting 13 countries to make reports on the sexual exploitation of children to the UN Human Rights Committee.
ECPAT praises Malaysian government on its child sexual offences law
In March 2018, ECPAT applauded the Government of Malaysia for recent changes to the law that increased penalties for the sexual exploitation of children. But it also warned officials there that more needs to be done to protect children, especially from sexual exploitation in the travel and tourism industry.
At a briefing of government officials, Dorothy Rozga, then Executive Director of ECPAT International, said that ECPAT was positive about the 2016 amendment to the Child Act that has established a registry of child sex offenders in Malaysia. She also praised the Sexual Offenses Against Children Act.
“I would very much like to congratulate the Malaysian government for the new Sexual Offenses Against Children Act, passed last year. This law is very progressive in terms of protecting children from online sexual exploitation and online grooming. This is a great step forward for protecting children.”
However, Ms. Rozga also said that Malaysia’s new law may not go far enough.
“This law does not specifically mention the sexual exploitation of children through travel and tourism. We know that this crime is a massive problem, but it is also clear that there are significant gaps in our understanding of the issue – both in Malaysia and the region.”