What is most striking about the sexual exploitation of children in the Middle East and North Africa region is how little is actually known about it. In a new report, ECPAT International warns that the lack of attention and data on this topic has dire consequences for the 160 million children living in the region.
In this story, we will put the spotlight on some of the biggest issues in the region; the sexual exploitation of children in war and conflict, through child marriages, and as influenced by complex gender norms. To understand the possibilities for change, we will give you some context to the realities of people in 19 countries in the Middle East and North Africa are facing.
The Middle East and North African region is home to a diverse group of countries; from wealthy oil-exporting countries in the Arabic Gulf to countries ranked amongst the world’s poorest and least developed, like Sudan and Yemen. As of 2018, nearly 160 million children were living in the region, and the population will continue to increase.
From Qatar to Sudan. Photo (right): UNICEF/UN065988/Hatcher-Moore
Some countries in the region suffer from slow-paced reforms, rising debt levels and high unemployment rates, particularly among youth and women. All of these factors are likely to be dramatically exacerbated as national economies recover from the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to these challenges, our report highlights publications indicating that welfare systems are stretched to their breaking point in many places. With so many competing challenges, addressing the sexual exploitation of children can be de-prioritised.
Issues such as rising debt levels and high unemployment rates, especially among youth and women are likely to be exacerbated as national economies recover from COVID-19.
There are armed conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Over 61 million children are living in countries affected by conflict and the region as a whole has the highest concentration of humanitarian needs in the world. According to ECPAT’s report, even in peaceful countries, there are high prevalence rates of violence against children, which includes female genital mutilation, physical punishment, sexual and gender-based violence.
There are still high prevalence rates of violence against children, including female genital mutilation, physical punishment, sexual and gender-based violence, even in peaceful countries.
Our report notes that the 19 governments in the Middle East and North Africa have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and its Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography to protect children from being exploited. However, evidence still indicates that the entire region needs to significantly step up its efforts in protecting children from sexual exploitation.
Read more about the sexual exploitation of children in war and conflict, through child, early and forced marriages, and as a result of gender norms.
Cultural taboos that discourage discussions about sex and sexuality make it challenging for both the public and governments to address, or even to acknowledge the issue of child sexual exploitation in the region. However, it is essential to acknowledge that there are ways to tackle this critical issue. Some of the crucial actions and considerations needed are:
The data gap must be addressed. It is hampering the understanding and the responses to the sexual exploitation of children in the region. Data collection by national governments is essential to assessing the prevalence and severity of child sexual exploitation, to understand the types, trends, forms and profiles of victims and perpetrators as well as routes and drivers of exploitation.
Strategies are needed for preventing and responding to all forms of child sexual exploitation during war and conflict. They must address risk factors that can push children and families into sexual exploitation. Special attention should be given to unaccompanied children.
There are special groups in need of tailored attention, including refugee and displaced children, boys and LGBTQI youth. These groups’ experiences, for example, social rejection and stigmatisation, must be included in national strategies addressing the sexual exploitation of children.
In light of systemic gender discrimination across many countries in the region, boys and girls are affected differently by the risk factors for sexual exploitation. Therefore, age and gender-sensitive strategies are crucial when addressing the issue in the region. Harmful social norms that contribute to this discrimination must be addressed through public education campaigns that attempt to shift old ideas that prevent children from seeking help.
Full implementation of laws and policies to fit international standards, including withdrawing reservations related to human rights declarations is an essential step for several countries in the region.