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One year on: how has COVID-19 impacted the sexual exploitation of children?

Posted on Mar 24, 2021

UN Special Rapporteur on the Sale and Sexual Exploitation of Children, Mama Fatima Singhate has issued a new report highlighting the impact of Covid-19 on children’s vulnerability to exploitation and recommending measures to address these risks. The Special Rapporteur outlines the push and pull factors, protection challenges, best practices, and provides recommendations on measures to address the heightened risks of sale and sexual exploitation of children—both online and offline—during and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis and the ensuing lockdowns. 

Through the observations of our 122 member organisations, who continued playing a critical role during the pandemic in monitoring and preventing child sexual exploitation, as well as supporting survivors, ECPAT International was able to provide a set of critical contributions to this effort. We are pleased to see the following issues covered in the final report: 

  • “Drive by” sale of children: In some countries, restrictions and closures of hotels and entertainment venues have resulted in children being sold by traffickers inside vehicles, or children being driven to a meeting point. “Drive by” sale of children has been observed in several countries where heavy restrictions were imposed. 
  • Increased online child sexual exploitation: Previously used physical locations for exploitation of children have now given way to selling children through social media and messaging applications. There were indications of an increase in sexual exploitation through the live streaming of abuse, grooming, and so-called “sexting”. There was also an increase in the production, distribution and possession of “self-generated” content, produced by children themselves. There were also indications of increased attempts to access child sexual abuse material online during this period, and of an increase in group chats or forums which exchange child sexual abuse imagery.
  • Children sold for food: Several reports from refugee and migrant camps have emerged indicating that, by reason of significant decreases of humanitarian aid and heavy restrictions on travel, children have been sold for food and basic supplies, and also children themselves have been forced to engage in sexual activities in exchange for food. Due to international travel restrictions, the domestic trafficking of children has also been noted to increase, creating a surge in demand for local children.

The fact that the offenders have reacted so quickly to find ways to sexually exploit children around COVID restrictions and that the economic impact of the pandemic is affecting children in this way is alarming. 

The report has been put forward for discussion as part of the 46th regular session of the Human Rights Council – a UN initiative which brings together leaders and experts  to identify current critical Human rights issues, and to discuss recommendations and calls to action for governments to address these. We hope that the evidence offered by the ECPAT network will help outline the urgency of the situation and bring the prevention of child sexual exploitation, and the unique new challenges as a result of the pandemic, to the top of the agenda. In the meantime, we urge governments to listen to alerts raised by their local ECPAT member or other child rights organisations, and to allocate adequate resources to investigating and preventing this crime.

>>Read the full report here<<

While ECPAT call upon governments and businesses to prioritise child protection, you can also play your part:

Or learn more about the sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism by reading our summary paper on the issue