At the forefront of our mission to protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse, Guillaume Landry, the Executive Director of ECPAT International, recently engaged in a crucial conversation with the BBC. Against the backdrop of a mounting global cost of living crisis, the interview unearths the devastating implications for children and their families.
Mr. Landry addresses the harrowing reality that sexual exploitation often becomes a coping mechanism for children, families, and communities facing economic duress. The desperate need to make ends meet tragically forces them into a world of exploitation and abuse.
During this eye-opening dialogue, Mr. Landry dispels the common misconception that child sexual exploitation is confined to certain geographic regions. He reveals that no country is immune to this issue, with the widespread penetration of technology and global development of travel and tourism exposing children everywhere to the risk of sexual exploitation, whether in rural and urban areas.
In a time where children are increasingly left to navigate the digital environment on their own, Mr. Landry underscores the need to bridge the gap between adults and children in conversations about sexuality. He notes that a significant bottleneck in addressing this issue is the discomfort that many adults feel when broaching the subject with children.
Mr. Landry stresses the importance of building trust with children and fostering open and honest communication. This approach, he believes, will encourage children to confide in trusted adults, enabling them to navigate challenges together.
© BBC 2023
This issue and concern about child sexual exploitation is not a new one in a number of countries, but how has the global cost of living crisis made things worse?
Sexual exploitation can become a coping mechanism for children, families, and communities exposed to duress, to make ends meet, and for that reason, it is indeed a worrisome trend to see the increase in the shared number of children resorting to that trade in order to survive. You also see perpetrators who, because of the difference of power and economic power, will make the best out of this unfortunate situation and increase the grooming approaches. So it’s a combination of those elements that expose more children to sexual exploitation because of the difficult social economic factors.
And is this issue of child exploitation and abuse actually getting worse in the world?
The latest evidence we have from Eastern and Southern Africa as much as in Southeast Asia is that the prevalence is completely alarming. We’re looking at countries that are as diverse as Malaysia and Thailand, or Mozambique, Namibia, Kenya, Uganda to have about 7-9% of the children in one year of time that are using the Internet and being sexually harmed seriously. The fact that those technologies have given ways to perpetrators to have direct contact individually with millions of children and refining the grooming techniques to lure them in situation of sexual expectation, really changed the game in the recent years and increased the prevalence of the problem.
Are there particular countries which have a bigger problem dealing with this than others?
Indeed. But what’s important is recently, we conducted a global study called Disrupting Harm in countries in Southeast Asia and Eastern and Southern Africa. Even though those countries were very different in their realities, the worrying trend is the prevalence is the same when you compare Mozambique to Malaysia, Thailand, Kenya, Namibia, and Uganda. So there are no countries that are immune to this problem, and the [idea] that hotspots existed before are no longer a reality because the penetration of technologies and the global development of travel and tourism for instance, are all factors that just leads children to be exposed as much in rural areas as they can be in urban areas everywhere in the world.
What would your advice be for parents trying to protect their children against this stuff?
There is the notion of sexuality. How are we able to talk about sex with children? We need to unpack the zone of discomfort that we have as adults with relating with children about sexuality. And that’s a huge bottleneck that the survivors themselves identify as the greatest need on their list. The trusting that adults would listen to them when things are going wrong, rather than blaming them and taking away the technology, for instance, or saying “I told you, you shouldn’t accept people you didn’t know”, because basically, when things turn wrong, children don’t disclose because they don’t trust that us, the adults will be capable of making things better for them and with them.
But more and more, the children are saying that they’re left on their own without guidance. And when things go wrong, they are good enough to blame themselves. They don’t need us to blame them as well.