In 2006, the Sri Lankan Government ratified the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography and accordingly committed itself to combat sexual exploitation of children (SEC). In September 2015, through the adoption of the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development, the Government re-committed to eliminate all forms of violence against children, including sexual abuse and exploitation.
In spite of these commitments, it is regrettable that Sri Lanka does not have any credible official data on child prostitution and sexual exploitation of children. However, third party research and evidence suggest the existence of both these abuses in Sri Lanka. In fact, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recently confirmed that Sri Lankan Government lacks a comprehensive national plan to address the issues of child prostitution.
On the plus side, however, we do have mechanisms in place to protect the children. Those include the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), a Presidential Taskforce on Child Protection, and the Women and Children’s Bureau. They have their own noble missions or goals. With all these organisations in place, one might wonder how child sexual exploitation continues to flourish in Sri Lanka. To find an answer, we need to go through some credible information and reports.
A joint report on Sexual Exploitation of Children in Sri Lanka was released by PEaCE (Protecting Environment and Children Everywhere) and ECPAT (End Child Prostitution and Trafficking) in March 2017. PEaCE started as part of the campaign to End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT), now known as ECPAT International. PEaCE is a well-recognised child protection non-governmental organization that has been operating since 1991. It is said to be the only NGO in Sri Lanka that focuses mainly on the sexual abuse and exploitation of children.
The report reveals some useful information for us to study. It says:
“Sri Lanka is primarily a source and destination, and to a lesser extent, a transit country with regard to trafficking of children for sexual exploitation. In contrast to other South Asian countries, a distinct characteristic of sexual exploitation of children in Sri Lanka is that organised crime groups target boys more than girls for the purpose of sexual exploitation, notably in coastal areas in the context of travel and tourism.”
“Girls, on the other hand, are prostituted to the local population, mainly in unregistered hotels, guesthouses, karaoke bars, massage parlours and brothels. PEaCE notes that reporting of SEC cases remains low largely because of the stigma attached to the victim, reluctance to get involved in court proceedings, and/or pressure from influential people to ignore the offence. In addition, there have been rumours of bribery and corruption involved.”
“When we study the experiences of other countries, we realise that by taking systematic and appropriate action, it is possible to reduce child sexual exploitation to a minimum level”
“The growth of the tourism industry has led to a growing demand for commercial sex in Sri Lanka, contributing to an increase in Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism (SECTT).”
“Even though its scope cannot be assessed due to the lack of updated data, the country continues to be notorious as an easy destination for SECTT, mostly because of the weak enforcement of laws pertaining to sexual exploitation of children.”
The report further says that 16 stakeholders from the international tourism industry with operations in Sri Lanka signed ECPAT’s Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism. Strangely, none of the local business did.
ECPAT’s Global Study also confirmed the high influx of paedophiles and child sex offenders to Sri Lanka. Data shows that 20% of boys enter the sex industry due to economic reasons, typically from age 11 to 17. On the other hand, one third of them enter it due to peer influence or social pressure. Cases of young boys being sold to adults by their families were also documented.
By going through this information, it’s natural for any concerned citizen to ask two questions: (1) if this the reality, why haven’t the Government officials taken appropriate action? (2) Can sexual exploitation of children be completely stopped?
Of course, the government and NGOs have taken steps to prevent and raise awareness about sexual exploitation of children. But those were not adequate. The efforts have not been coordinated with the private sector and have not been sustainable.
When we study the experiences of other countries, we realise that by taking systematic and appropriate action, it is possible to reduce child sexual exploitation to a minimum level.
In this writer’s opinion, if we need to solve this major problem, we have to start from the basics. First of all, we must set out a comprehensive strategy with the firm commitment of all relevant bodies to do everything possible to prevent sexual exploitation of children and also to support its victims.
The strategy should outline the challenges we face in-depth, the steps we intend taking for its solution, our priorities and objectives and how we will monitor progress in achieving our final ambition. We must not forget that recent reviews have concluded that child sexual exploitation is not exclusive to any single community or area, race or religion.
Most sexually-exploited children live at home when their abuse begins. It is clear that increased awareness amongst parents, young people, carers, professionals across the partnership and the wider public of the nature and indicators of child sexual exploitation is essential to both preventing the risk of and ending ongoing abuse.
Therefore, a key priority of this strategy should be to ensure that professionals and other adults in contact with children and young people are alert to risk factors and therefore they need to be educated of safeguarding concerns. They also need to be aware of how to support such young people and the range of specialist agencies that can advise them or provide targeted support. They must be aware how to address risk factors which may indicate or lead to sexual exploitation of children.
“The awareness needs to be raised among children and young people, their families and the wider community about what sexual exploitation is and, if exposed, where to get help”
This writer also believes that the strategy may have to focus on some other areas also:
(1) A need of a comprehensive database on sexual exploitation of children with facts and figures over a decade or two. Some of the information may be available with other Ministries, departments or NGOs. For others, research must be done to “extract” hidden information. (2) A need to provide intensive support around the young victims and their families, (3) A need to raise awareness of child sexual exploitation among teachers, families and the community; (4) A need to disrupt hot spots, houses, hotels, shopping centres being used for this purpose and report to licensing bodies where appropriate (5) A need of written plan of action (both short-term and long-term) to achieve these objectives.
It is best if the focus of the strategy is concentrated on internationally accepted three-pronged approach; Prevent, Protect and Pursue.
This can be done by promoting self-esteem, positive relationships and resilience among children and young people. It may prevent them from associating with people who would sexually exploit them. The awareness needs to be raised among children and young people, their families and the wider community about what sexual exploitation is and, if exposed, where to get help.
Intensive training programmes with practical solutions must be made available for the people working with and caring for children and young people.
This can be given by building the effectiveness of interventions in protecting children and young people who are or have been sexually exploited. In addition, we must engage and listen to children and young people in monitoring the impact of risk management plans. We should also share such information effectively so that analysis leads to effective targeted action.
This can be made effective by disrupting and preventing the activities of individuals intent on child sexual abuse and exploitation and by maximising the use of enforcement powers to interrupt the activities of perpetrators. We need to take action against perpetrators, including bringing them to justice for crimes they have committed.
If all related organisations and divisions are determined to work together, proactively across the partnership to identify those vulnerable to sexual exploitation, build resilience, prevent exploitation taking place and prosecute perpetrators, reducing the child sexual exploitation would not be such a difficult task.