Public Opinion is Clear: Urgent Legislation Required to Protect Children from Sexual Exploitation! Read the story

Defence For Children Netherlands: Global developments in the sexual exploitation of children

Posted on Jun 15, 2022


The Netherlands, 13 June 2022 


The influence of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and increasing food insecurity on the sexual exploitation of children worldwide. 

Internationally, the risks of children becoming victims of sexual exploitation have increased, both in real life and by technology. Climate change, food insecurities, and conflict exacerbate the risks even further. Due to the pandemic and lockdowns, professionals faced difficulties in identifying child victims, and fewer children were able to come forward and report. This increase in risks and decrease in protection results in a growing protection gap.


The scale of the problem

Few children disclose the sexual exploitation they are subjected to, more often to a peer than an adult. Even fewer are being reported, with estimates between 3 to 5%. In the Philippines in 2021, over 2 million children experienced serious harm sexually.

According to the WeProtect Global Alliance, 1 in 3 internet users is a child under 18 years of age, and 175,000 children go online for the first time every day. A significant increase is noted in the proportion of potential victims for whom Facebook and Instagram were the websites for recruitment into trafficking (120%). A 125% increase in reports of recruitment on Facebook has been seen from the previous year [1]. In Peru, 7 out of 10 parents consider that their children are exposed to situations of grooming, sexting, and sextortion on social media networks and in online games, and 48% have faced some of these risks [2].

The Internet Watch Foundation reported that 2021 was the worst year on record for child sexual abuse online.

There was a 64% increase from 2020 in URLs containing child sexual abuse imagery, links to this imagery, or advertisements for it. Almost 70% of victims were aged between 11 and 13 [3]. Young girls are at particular risk. Ten years ago (in 2011), they accounted for 60% of the children seen in child sexual abuse images. That has now risen to 97%. Boys tend to be more vulnerable on gaming platforms, ECPAT International notes, based on its Disrupting Harm research.


Pandemic effects

During the lockdowns, as the proportion of victims from common recruitment sites such as strip clubs, foster homes, and schools drastically decreased, the Internet was reported as the top recruitment location for all forms of trafficking.

Often, children were victims of aggressors who lived in their own homes.

Their situation was exacerbated, given that children could not report their aggressors, mainly due to internal family dynamics (lack of support and dialogue) and the weakness of service channels, with reduced service hours and the impossibility for the children to leave their homes. In Bolivia, the Ministry of Justice reported 1,308 cases of sexual violence against children and 51 infanticides in 2020. In just the first eight months of 2021, 1,119 complaints of sexual violence against children were recorded [4].

In Nicaragua, although there is a lack of official data, there are strong indications that violence has increased during the pandemic, since 81% of the children interviewed affirm that they have seen or faced violence in their homes, communities, or online, from the beginning of the pandemic to date. The reported figures suggest that violence against children (including virtual violence) could increase between 20% and 32% in 2022 [5].

The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought an economic downturn likely to continue long after the current period of sheltering in place. Some 55% of people globally – about 4 billion – do not have any social protection. They are extremely vulnerable to shocks now and over the long term. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the number of people in extreme poverty could skyrocket by 40 million to 60 million this year alone, compared to before the crisis. Other estimates point to a 20% rise in 2020. A study of poverty increases based on three scenarios – global economic contractions of 5%, 10% and 20% – found that the number of people in extreme poverty could soar by 85 million, 180 million and 420 million people, respectively, compared to 2018. With poverty comes child labour, as households use every available means to survive. Prospects vary by country, but causal estimates of elasticity are mostly above 0.7. In other words, a 1 percentage point rise in poverty leads to at least a 0.7 percentage point increase in child labour.



Ukraine already had trafficking routes and networks in place before the crisis. Though figures are not yet readily available, this does not mean that the sexual exploitation of children is not happening.

ECPAT members in Ukraine and Russia forsee increased risks for children in-country (those that stayed behind), in transit, and in destination countries, such as the Netherlands.

The policy of preventing men from leaving the country meant that young women and children were travelling alone, which heightened their risks. And while the criminal networks were ready to respond, the international community was not.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation reported an increase in self-generated sexual content by children. It indicated that children may become easier prey due to the toxic mix of violence, family separation, human trafficking, online exploitation, smuggling, and illegal adoption [6]. This is not a new phenomenon, ECPAT International confirms, it is a systemic problem occurring in humanitarian crises, be it armed conflict, climate change or natural disasters. However, the sexual exploitation of children is not included in the early warning and planning phase, nor in the response phase. Children specifically are absent from sexual violence and abuse strategies.


Food insecurity

One of the subsets of that crisis is food insecurity, which, when combined with inflation, becomes a global problem. Food insecurity is a critical factor in the sexual exploitation of children, forcing the poorest segments of the population into sexual exploitation. It is also a context in which those seeking to exploit children can enter an open market where the safety nets aren’t there anymore.


What can you do?

  1. Advocate for the prevention and eradication of the sexual exploitation of children internationally, backed up by a long-term strategy and commitment from Dutch Foreign (ODA) Policy.
  2. Advocate for the inclusion of strategies for prevention and eradication of sexual exploitation in humanitarian crises/conflict and in the budgets.
  3. (Advocate for the) Support (of) programmes that work on changing social norms, with organizations that are embedded in communities.
  4. Advocate, in EU spaces, for more donors to commit to the prevention and combat of sexual exploitation internationally as the problem itself is on the rise, and the interest amongst international donors is decreasing.
  5. Engage with, support, and disseminate the proposed EU legislation to prevent and combat child sexual abuse online, also beyond Europe, as it has the ability to serve as an example for other regions in regulating the social media and gaming industries.


Learn more about our work:

Disrupting Harm: Studying the online sexual exploitation of children

Global Boys Initiative: Studying the sexual exploitation of boys

Agents of Change course: An e-learning training program for frontline workers to understand the sexual exploitation of children

Global Study on the Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism



[1] Reports on 2022 Worldwide Sex Trafficking Statistics

[2] Research of ICCO-Cordaid in Latin America (2022), part of the Down to Zero – Programme

[3] IWF Annual Report 2021

[4] Research of ICCO-Cordaid in Latin America (2022), part of the Down to Zero – Programme

[5] Research of ICCO-Cordaid in Latin America (2022), part of the Down to Zero – Programme

[6] Speech by ms. Gulsanna Mamediieva, Government of Ukraine, Ministry of Digital Transformation. Director-General of the Directorate for Strategic Planning and European Integration, at the WeProtect Global Summit in Brussels on 2 June 2022.