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

UN Special Rapporteur Ms. Mama Fatima Singhateh Urges Global Collaboration to Tackle Child Exploitation in Voluntourism

Posted on Dec 20, 2023

“As child safeguarding measures vary significantly across sending and receiving countries of volunteers, gaps arise in respect to their applicability, causing vulnerability to exploitation and abuse of children.”   

“The issue of sexual abuse and exploitation of children through voluntourism is indeed complex, and it requires extensive and wide-ranging intervention at local, national, regional and international levels by all sectors, all actors and all stakeholders working together.” 

On 10 October 2023, ECPAT International, PACT, and Ms. Mama Fatima Singhateh, the UN Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, spearheaded a movement to regulate voluntourism. 

This critical event, based on the UN Special Rapporteur’s findings on the exploitation and sexual abuse of children in travel and tourism, with a closer look at the phenomena of voluntourism, brought together a diverse group of global authorities and advocates to call for responsible voluntourism practices. 

Introducing her report on voluntourism, Ms. Mama Fatima reiterated the complexities and dangers associated with this rapidly growing sector. Citing recommendations from the report, she emphasised the need for a holistic and coordinated approach among all stakeholders at national, regional, and international levels. 

Read the highlights of her speeches below. 

The emergence of voluntourism 

In the last three decades, the global travel and tourism industry has witnessed a significant surge, driven by advancements in technology. However, the emergence of new forms of tourism, such as voluntourism, has outpaced efforts to regulate and protect children from exploitation and abuse. 

Voluntourism, short for volunteer tourism, is a form of tourism wherein travellers engage in voluntary work, usually for charity. They are typically advertised as a way to gain new skills, form social connections, and teach experiences related to different cultures. Popular forms of voluntourism include teaching placements and volunteering in residential care facilities or orphanages. 

Within the realm of travel and tourism markets, voluntourism products primarily target unskilled volunteers, with little to no supervision and criminal backgrounds checks required. 

Adverse effects of voluntourism 

The potential adverse impacts of voluntourism are a critical concern, as outlined by Ms. Mama Fatima. While the concept of voluntourism is premised on noble intentions, it raises significant concerns about the heightened vulnerability of children, particularly in regions lacking robust legal protection and effective child protection systems. 

Voluntourism initiatives, often conducted without adequate regulation and supervision, pose inherent risks to the physical safety, well-being, and holistic development of children. The absence of safeguarding procedures in unregulated and unsupervised placements can result in direct and potentially harmful engagement with children in vulnerable settings. 

The lack of stringent requirements, including supervision and criminal background checks for volunteers, also creates avenues for perpetrators seeking access to children. This may lead to the establishment of relationships and methods of contact, facilitating grooming and subsequent exploitation and abuse. 

The challenges in combatting child exploitation through voluntourism 

“The informal and decentralised nature of voluntourism has led to difficulties in the collection of statistics on the numbers, scope and magnitude of the phenomena.” 

Ms. Mama Fatima outlined significant challenges inherent in addressing child exploitation within voluntourism, underscoring the complexities arising from its informal and decentralised nature. A central concern lies in the absence of specific laws tailored to this issue, coupled with limited enforcement measures. Ms. Mama Fatima stressed the need for mandatory regulations encompassing background checks, vetting processes, and volunteer qualifications. Gaps in legislation and enforcement have impeded the comprehensive collection of data on the prevalence of adverse effects. 

Coordination and collaboration among various stakeholders remain deficient, with few countries invoking extraterritorial legislation to hold their citizens accountable for crimes committed against children abroad. Resource constraints and jurisdictional conflicts also present significant obstacles in prosecuting individuals involved in such crimes.

Recommendations for the way forward 

“Whether they occur in an organised or isolated manner, whether it’s deliberately or inadvertently, child sexual abuse and exploitation through voluntourism involve the participation and facilitation within the industry of many different actors. It is therefore essential that every sector establish and implement strategies that tackle and address the exploitation and sexual abuse of children through voluntourism at national, regional and international levels.” 

Citing her report, Ms. Mama Fatima shared several recommendations to tackle the issue, including: 

  • Ratifying and incorporating the World Tourism Organisation Framework Convention on Tourism, Ethics and the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its three optional protocols. 
  • Adopting the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism and promoting the use of Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism (The Code) within the travel and tourism sector at national levels. 
  • Creating a regulated system of volunteering and conducting thorough background checks on volunteers and provide training and support to ensure that they understand and respect the rights of children.
  • Strengthening existing laws to address all forms of exploitation of children, including the sale, sexual abuse and trafficking of children in travel and tourism.   
  • All stakeholders – including international and regional bodies, the private sector, civil society, community actors, should work together to address and respond to the phenomena of voluntourism as part of sustainable and responsible tourism development.   

“Volunteering is good. It’s just the unregulated, unskilled volunteering for the purpose of tourism that is not, and it can be made better through regulation.”

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Mama Fatima highlighted the importance of political will and funding in effectively addressing the adverse effects of voluntourism. Beyond legislating, governments must allocate funds for comprehensive training of officials, law enforcement officers, and awareness campaigns.