Children should not be seen as victims of sexual exploitation, but rather the front-line fighters against it, said non-profit Save the Children Sweden at a preparatory meeting in Dakar in advance of the World Congress against sexual exploitation of children and adolescents to be held in Rio, Brazil in November 2008.
The summit will be co-organised by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and NGO End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT).
Save the Children’s West Africa adviser Elkane Mooh told IRIN it is children who are best placed to help address the situation. “They are the primary actors in this because they know the situation best. Abuse is something which is hidden, but kids can share this information by talking to each other – together they can help find the solutions.”
Up to 22 children from 15 African countries joined human rights groups, child specialists and non-profit organisations to debate how children can take on a bigger role in the fight against exploitation.
“Children need a voice in society,” 14-year-old Tenicia from South Africa told IRIN. “Adults tend to forget about children. Most children don’t know about the dangers of sexual exploitation. They don’t know their rights.”
Although accurate statistics are hard to come by, child rights advocates at the conference say it is possible sexual exploitation of children is on the rise.
Save the Children’s Mooh says the global economic slump is partly to blame. “The food price crisis and the difficult economic conditions we’re going through can mean that parents are more likely to turn a blind eye to these activities. Children have more and more economic responsibility within the family – and this puts pressure on them.”
In Kenya, 80 percent of surveyed child sex-workers said a family member or friend introduced them to sex work according to the International Labour Organization.
Young people at the Dakar meeting discussed different forms of exploitation, from sex tourism and sexual violence at school, to forced and early marriages, and sexual violence during and after conflicts.
Breaking the silence with a text message
One suggestion children put forward is to tap into youth-friendly communication tools. Mamadou, 16, from Senegal said “When a child has gone through this [exploitation] it can be too difficult for them to talk to their family about it – or even to a helpline. So, texting a help service could be a better way of making children talk.”
But opening a dialogue is just part of the equation. “When a child is the victim of sexual exploitation by a tourist, they must first get medical help”, says 17-year-old Chamir from Togo, “but the hospital should give that information to the Ministry of Health and also to the Ministry of Tourism that controls the hotels. It’s important that the different departments communicate with each other.”
UNICEF West Africa adviser Joaquim Theis says the heart of any strategy for change should involve children. “The vast majority of children don’t have a choice in life. They aren’t given information…they are not involved in decisions made about them. We need to move beyond these very limited forms of children’s participation and move towards a freedom of expression, of information and decision making – their basic civil rights.”
Yassin (15) from Gambia is among the youths expected to present at the Rio Congress. “We have to come together. This is really affecting us young children. Sugar-daddies give short term benefits but long-term problems. We can make a difference – the future lies in our hands.”