While the full-scale war in Ukraine continues after a year, thousands of civilians, including that of children, are added to the list of those that have since lost their lives. But Ukrainian children also face another silent and underreported battle. They are left to face the full impact of sexual exploitation in the midst of this war.
ECPAT members in Ukraine and across the region have reported severe human rights violations, including conflict-related sexual violence, children being sexually abused in the locations where they are being sheltered from attacks, and witnessing sexual or other forms of violence against their caregivers and civilians. These children, already suffering the impacts of the war, are being subjected to additional physical and psychological harm.
In the first months of the war, Thomson Reuters reported an alarming surge of internet searches for sexual services by Ukrainian women, highlighting how some have taken advantage of the instability to exploit those in vulnerable situations. However, in the chaos and disarray, little is known on the sexual exploitation of children. Despite the many warnings from civil society organisations, the number of unaccompanied children fleeing Ukraine has not been systematically reported and States have failed to proactively identify child victims and children in need of protection from sexual exploitation. While girls remain the primary victims, boys and children of different sexual orientation and gender identities are also not appropriately supported or identified because of stigma and social taboos around gender expression.
“We need more support and action to understand what is happening to children who are in conflict situations. Governments need to prioritise children’s rights and ensure that children are safe while being on the move”, calls Guillaume Landry, ECPAT Executive Director.
Even before the war, there has been documented criminal activity around the countries that border Ukraine, with Ukrainian authorities reporting to Europol about the existence of criminal networks operating in the country and across the European Union. 1 Concerns were also raised about the protection of children in the country’s institutions, illegal adoptions for EU nationals, and the country’s surrogacy programme, with inherent risks of trafficking and sale of children. These situations have been exacerbated by children not having identity documents, which leaves them more susceptible to abuses.
Despite the efforts of civil society organisations and children’s rights advocates, an increase in the detection of cases of trafficking in persons, involving Ukrainian victims, has not been documented,3 raising concerns about individuals taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of children exacerbated by the war to sexually exploit them. ECPAT members in Eastern Europe, who have dedicated their efforts to providing relief and support to persons fleeing Ukraine, raised the alarm for robust safeguards to insure all persons and volunteers engaging in contact with the displaced from Ukraine are properly selected, equipped and trained to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation of children.
“As more Ukrainian children are depending on the internet to connect with their peers and to access education, too little has been done to assess their risks of harm in their digital world and prevent them,” highlights Guillaume Landry, Executive Director of ECPAT International. “Online grooming perpetrated against girls, has only increased” reported La Strada Ukraine, a member of the All-Ukrainian Network against CSEC.
It is also critical to highlight that individuals with sexual interest in children have at their disposal a wide range of tools, facilitated by technology, to access children. From social media platforms, to gaming sites, they are able to remotely employ grooming techniques to sexually exploit children, while retaining their anonymity. Tools exist for tech companies to prevent and respond to risks of child sexual exploitation online but most regulatory frameworks in the region do not allow or oblige them to act accordingly.
As the consequences of the war continue to impact millions of lives in Ukraine and beyond, it is essential that countries around the world take serious actions to address the power inequalities, social and gender norms, the blaming and shaming of the victims and the lack of access to justice that allow individuals to take advantage of vulnerabilities intensified by war and other humanitarian crisis to sexually exploit children with relative impunity.
A year after the start of the full scale war in Ukraine, ECPAT International is calling for:
The sexual exploitation of children as a consequence of the war in Ukraine remains under documented and neglected. Despite knowing the risks, we continue to turn away from the children of Ukraine. We need better coordinated actions by governments, civil society, technology companies, transport and accommodation industries, frontline workers and the children themselves to stop failing Ukrainian boys and girls who are at-risk or victimised by sexual exploitation. Offenders must also be held accountable for their crime.
ECPAT International works around the world to end the sexual exploitation of children, including in emergency and crisis contexts. For more information about the sexual exploitation of children, visit our website www.ecpat.org or contact your nearest ECPAT member.
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