What do we know?
It is estimated that 2 million children fall victim to sexual exploitation every year, the majority of them girls. It is reported that 100,000 dollars can be earned from a child, and that a minor is exploited for two years, on averaged, before he or she is rescued or manages to escape.
Girls from lower social classes are often more vulnerable, spend less time in education, and tend to grow up on or below the poverty line. As a result, these children are frequently easy targets for exploiters. The direct and indirect effect of COVID-19 has been to make these children yet more vulnerable, which may magnify the problem of CSE even further.
1.1. INTERNATIONAL LEGISLATION
Despite clear commitments in the international policy agenda and international legislation, children’s rights, especially girls’ rights, are still being violated. The sexual exploitation of children is a gross violation of Article 34 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed by almost every country in the world, and the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography. Many countries have also signed the Stockholm Declaration (1996) and the Rio Declaration (2008), which specifically call for an end to child sexual exploitation. More recently, in September 2015 the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were added to these declarations. Adopted unanimously by governments around the world, the SDGs constitute an ambitious agenda that includes obligations on children’s rights and the rights of women and girls. SDGs 5.2 and 16.2 call for an end to abuse, exploitation, human trafficking, and all forms of violence and discrimination against women, girls and children.
A child is a victim of sexual exploitation if he or she participates in a sexual activity in exchange for something (such as a gain or benefit, or merely the promise of such) that is offered by a third party, the perpetrator, or the child themselves. Coercion or threats can be used to force a child into a situation of sexual exploitation, but a child can also be persuaded to participate in a sexual activity as a result of more complex and nuanced factors of a human and a situational nature, including unequal power relations between the victim and the perpetrator.
The sexual exploitation of children, or else child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a major problem around the world. Although exploitation takes place in every country, clear statistics are lacking. This is due to the hidden, criminal nature of the problem, the lack of a central database with information of sexual exploitation of children, and the different terminologies and definitions of CSE that are used in legislation and judicial systems. What’s more, victims do not speak out about the problem for shame of what has happened to them and fear of repercussions. Criminals also operate out of governments’ sight in order to avoid arrest, meaning that this is a relatively invisible crime.
Aside from the exploitation itself, another major problem is impunity. There are a several underlying reasons for this. Many victims fail to report crimes because they are ashamed or afraid of reprisals, or they do not know how. And even if a victim reports a crime, this does not automatically lead to a criminal trial, let alone a conviction, owing to the lack of legislation and policy on child sexual exploitation, the lack of knowledge surrounding the problem and how to tackle it, corruption, and the lack of resources and/or prioritization.
There is a wide gulf between the number of victims of CSE and the number of convictions. Combining the many reports and statistics, we have calculated that less than 1% of the perpetrators who are responsible for sexually exploiting minors are actually convicted.
1.5. IMPACT OF COVID-19
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation of sexual exploitation of children worldwide has worsened due to the closing of schools, failing protection systems, rising poverty, and more children being online (often unsupervised).
Families and children are now more open to human traffickers who promise them income and accommodation elsewhere. In countries such as Nepal and Thailand, for example, the tourism sector is a key source of income for poor families. When this sector disappeared, the power relations between abusers and exploiters on the one hand, and victims and families on the other, became even more unequal. The home situation has become more unsafe in many cases, and children and young people are at increasing risk of being exposed to sexual exploitation and (domestic) violence. When children and young people are unable to go to school, they spend more time online, which can bring them (back) into contact with perpetrators. Demand for online sexual services and images of CSE also increased during COVID-19. What’s more, girls run the risk of never returning to school, which reduces their chances of finding a job. In situations where children are advised to stay at home, fewer cases are detected by the police or NGOs. Lockdown makes it difficult or impossible for the police or local NGOs to conduct investigations or carry out rescues in red-light districts. As pimps and exploiters still want to earn money, children are increasingly being offered on Internet platforms or made to perform sexual acts in front of webcams.
It is thought that the COVID-19 pandemic will not disappear as soon as was originally thought – and even if the virus itself is brought under greater control, the effects of the crisis are expected to be long lasting. Countries around the world may therefore need to re-deploy measures such as lockdowns, the closure of schools and other facilities, and travel restrictions for years to come, meaning that protecting children and young people in this context remains vital. What’s more, when the tourism and travel industry start up again on a more structural basis, it will be crucial to keep sexual exploitation of children on the agenda.
In the past few years, we have seen a trend towards a fall in the number of rescues from brothels and a shift towards more hidden locations such as massage salons, private homes, hotels, or via webcams. Online elements are playing an increasing role in exploitation cases, including the recruitment and blackmailing of victims via social media and the offering of minor victims on the Internet for sexual exploitation online.
The shift from offline to online sexual exploitation accelerated enormously in 2020, because many red-light districts were closed due to COVID-19 measures. The perpetrators are using new technology such as social media, special forums and the dark web to contact minors and/or exchange information about the sexual abuse of children. However, governments and local NGOs often lack sufficient in-house knowledge to conduct online investigations to trace CSE This means that the criminals stay one step ahead and cases often remain hidden. In order to change this, Free a Girl USA has developed a program, Smart Rescue, which uses technology to gather information and evidence that lead to concrete cases. Our partners are being trained to use this technology.