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Ending Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation: State-of-play in Finland light of the Lanzarote Convention

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This article is a summary of a joint report between the Council of Europe and ECPAT International SecretariatThe Country Overviews were prepared in close collaboration with the national authorities represented in the Committee of Parties to the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (the Lanzarote Committee).

The Country Overview on Finland is the first one to be presented. These joint Country Overviews bring together  the information submitted by Parties to the Lanzarote Convention through the General Overview Questionnaire, the recommendations adopted by the Lanzarote Committee in its monitoring rounds, and additional desk-based research aimed to bring the information up to date. This report aims to provide an effective tool for advocacy, awareness raising and thus advancing the fight against child sexual exploitation and sexual abuse in countries. 

Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation 

What is Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation?

 Article 18 of the Lanzarote Convention defines sexual abuse as
a) the engagement in sexual activities with a child who, according to the relevant provisions of national law, has not reached the legal age for sexual activities; and
b) engaging in sexual activities with a child where: – use is made of coercion, force or threats; or – abuse is made of a recognised position of trust, authority or influence over the child, including within the family; or – abuse is made of a particularly vulnerable situation of the child, notably because of a mental or physical disability or a situation of dependence. 

Despite Finland’s above-average standards for protecting children against violence and guaranteeing their well-being, some gaps still prevail. 

Finland is a highly industrialised country and in 2018 reported the lowest rate of children at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the European Union. However, the Finnish economy and society as a whole, like the rest of the world, was heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic resulting in a recession, mass layoffs and rising unemployment.  

“Poverty, in general, can be a significant determinant in not only perpetuating sexual exploitation of children but also in reinforcing its demand for the sexual exploitation of children”

According to the information provided by the Finnish authorities, a total of 2,660 and 3,210 child victims of sexual crimes were reported to the police in 2020 and 2021 respectively. This includes sexual abuse, aggravated sexual abuse and aggravated rape. Children in Finland are also increasingly suffering from sexual harassment. Recent and specific research on the scale and form of sexual abuse of children in Finland is also limited, despite the Action Plan for the Prevention of Violence against Children 2020-2025 addressing all forms of violence against children. 

The sexual exploitation of children in prostitution and trafficking 

Limited data and research 

Research indicates that exploitation of children through prostitution – in particular in the context of transactional sex – is a reality in Finland. Finland is also a destination country for trafficked persons, with the majority of presumed victims having been exploited abroad before arriving or during their journey to Finland. Both adult and child victims are often asylum seekers or from a minority group. Since 2010, the number of migrants and refugees, including minors, arriving in Finland is rising, but the assistance to child victims is often delayed. 

 The identification of sexual exploitation through trafficking differs among professionals and across the country. Concerns have been expressed by the United Nations Committee for the Rights of the Child and the Lanzarote Committee to all its State Parties, including Finland, about the limited availability of mechanisms for data collection on child sexual abuse and exploitation. Although questions on violence against children have been included in survey-based research since 2017, official information from the government, for example on the profile of offenders or place of offence is still largely insufficient. 

The Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Children facilitated by Technology 

Internet usage in Finland is strong and widespread with most children having access to the Internet and tech devices. Crimes committed online are ever evolving and to fully protect children, it is vital that legislation keeps pace with new ways in which offenders seek to exploit children. Recent research indicates that children in Finland experience sexual abuse and exploitation facilitated by technology. For example, with regards to grooming, 62% of 1,762 survey respondents aged 11-17 indicated that they had been contacted either by a known person, that are clearly sexual in nature. 

The Finnish Criminal Code contains several offences that protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation in the online environment and through the use of technology. This is also reflected in the new legislation.  

The Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Boys 

Although there is a significant lack of research focusing on the sexual abuse and exploitation of boys in Finland, few studies and surveys have been carried out in the country providing indication that boys are sexually abused/exploited online through grooming and also sexually harassed in sport contexts.

Child Sensitive Justice 

The framework of child-friendly justice is comprehensive in Finland but it can still progress in regard to the correct use of terminology to correctly identify victims and the improvement of the investigative model within the child-friendly legal response model of the Barnahus. Within the Barnahus-units, implemented in university hospitals, professionals are brought together to cooperate in the child’s best interests and work in direct contact with the child victim or suspected victim. Professionals interacting with children should be specifically trained and, while the Non-violent Childhood Action Plan 2020-2025 foresees that, little information is provided on the number of sessions to be organised, their timeframe and expected results. 

Additional vulnerabilities 

Despite the lack of statistics on sexual abuse and exploitation of particularly vulnerable children, the wealth of qualitative studies conducted in Finland identifies some main trends on the topic. Self-reporting School Health Promotion surveys that include violence-related questions are regularly sent to a number of schools, which show that Finnish children and young people in vulnerable situations, experience significantly more violence than their peers. Children in vulnerable situations can include children with disabilities, children of foreign origin, children belonging to sexual or gender minority groups, and/or children placed outside the home. A recent 2020 study demonstrated that in Finland, children with disabilities were 3.53 times more likely to suffer from serious violence, including sexual violence, than their peersChildren and young people belonging to gender and sexual minorities also have increased risk of experiencing sexual violence. 

The report outlines key ways forward. Finland’s government should:   

  • Standardise the definitions of child sexual abuse and separate the related data to better design evidence-based policies aimed at addressing the needs of child victims, particularly those with disabilities or from a minority group. 
  • Ensure that all staff responsible for interviewing child victims have undergone suitable qualifying training (Lanzarote Committee, 1st monitoring report, Recommendation 42) and ensure that interviews of the child victim are conducted in a child-friendly setting separate from the usual premises where investigations and interviews are conducted (such as police, hospital, or court premises). (Lanzarote Committee, 1st monitoring report, Recommendation 41). 
  • Legislate and criminalise online child sexual abuse and exploitation, to ensure better protection for children. For example, live streaming of child sexual abuse is not explicitly criminalised under the Finnish legal framework. 
  • Introduce a national referral mechanism which defines the roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders and promotes a multi-agency approach to victim identification by involving a range of frontline professionals and entities, including non-governmental organisations, labour inspectors, social workers, health-care staff, municipal staff. 
  • Take the necessary legislative or other measures to set up or designate mechanisms for data collection or focal points at national or local level and in collaboration with civil society, for the purpose of observing and evaluating in terms of quantitative data collection the phenomenon of the sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children in general and child sexual abuse committed in the circle of trust, in particular (Lanzarote Committee, 1st monitoring report, Recommendation 13). 
  • Put in place effective mechanisms for data collection with a specific focus on children affected by the refugee crisis who are victims or presumed victims of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse and review the possible removal of obstacles to the collection of such data, in particular, where they exist, legal restrictions to do so, with due respect for the requirements of personal data protection (Lanzarote Committee, Special report, Recommendation 7). 

About The Council of Europe

The Council of Europe is the continent’s leading human rights organisation. It has 46 member states, including all members of the European Union. All Council of Europe member states have signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, a treaty designed to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law. All member States have also ratified the Lanzarote Convention.