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Prevention, Protection and Recovery of Children from Commercial Sexual Exploitation

Jane Warburton for the NGO Group for the Convention on the Rights of the Child
Yokohama, 17-20 December 2001

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Executive Summary

The sexual abuse of children and young people through commercial exploitation, is a fundamental violation of their rights. It is a universal and complex problem, which defies both simplistic analysis and easy answers. It encompasses a range of abusers, different forms of abuse, and varies in the type and degree of impact on the victim. The recognition of this abuse as a universal phenomenon has been positive, but clarity about incidence or trends is less forthcoming. There are continuing concerns around divergence in terminology and the poor quality of much of the research aimed at establishing both incidence and impact.

Since the First World Congress Against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, in 1996, which served to focus attention on the issue, there has been a substantial increase in activities designed to counter a potential increase in the incidence of abuse, and its negative impact on children and young people. Interventions have increased through specific targeted projects, and most significantly through an increased recognition that sexually abused and exploited children are frequently the same children who are facing a range of difficulties. They are the displaced and refugee children, street children, children in hazardous labour etc. An inclusive approach, one that incorporates these interventions into programmes for these multiply disadvantaged group, is a positive way to enhance access to services, and reduce the marginalisation and segregation experienced by abused and exploited children. Despite this, opportunities for reaching children at risk or experiencing sexual abuse, are still being underused, particularly through those organisations addressing the threat and impact of HIV/AIDS, and drug addiction.

Rather than highlighting or focussing on the particular needs of sexually exploited children, many services explicitly choose to adopt an holistic approach, operating in ways that are consistent with key principles and approaches for working with all children. These include work that is based on children's rights, supporting their participation, and incorporating activities that encourage or strengthen resilience. They try to reduce isolation and alienation. They support alternative survival strategies that allow children to exit the sex trade. They use cultural differences when this is positive, but confront traditional practices that maintain this abuse. Service providers learn from each other and are supported by networks. At a macro-level legislative, political and social systems need to support efforts on an individual or community basis.

Whether or not this increased awareness and growth of services has been accompanied by a comparable level of positive change for the beneficiaries, children and young people at risk or already abused through commercial sexual exploitation, is less certain. The lack of evidence is the result of a shortage of programme and project evaluation. The expansion of prevention, protection and recovery measures, should be based on transferring good practice and positively learning from mistakes; thus evaluation is critical. In the absence of evaluation of the impact of most projects, it is possible to generate certain practice standards, against which projects' performance can, in principle, be reviewed. Standards, derived from international instruments, practice guidance, children and young people's views, plus evidence from research, are proposed in this Paper. By referring to them, it is possible to identify elements of good practice, and highlight ways in which standards are translated into practical activities, citing examples from around the World. These include interventions with children abused in commercial and non-commercial settings, as their reactions are known to be similar in many circumstances, and there is value in sharing ideas and expertise.

There are relatively few examples of evaluations that focus on the impact of services. By referring to some examples of evaluations that incorporate children's own assessment, the potential of such exercises is highlighted. They have personal experience from which to assess services - have they been instrumental in achieving positive change, has their quality of life improved, do they see new opportunities for their future?

Looking forward to the next World Congress, what is its potential impact? From the perspective of those practitioners working directly with children and young people, it will be evaluated on the basis of answers to certain fundamental questions. Has it re-focussed world attention on the issue of the sexual abuse and exploitation of children? Has it raised the awareness of the impact of this abuse on these children? Has it generated sufficient input and information about new approaches to inform and refocus projects? Have organisations been encouraged and supported to record, assess and publicise their work, to ensure that learning and practice examples are derived from all continents? Were organisations made to review the impact of their work? Has it encouraged and listened to what young people have to say about the problem and response strategies? From the young peoples' perspective, will prevention, protection and recovery programmes increase and generate positive changes for those most at risk? If the Second World Congress can achieve the objectives implicit in these questions, it will have contributed significantly to improving services that enhance prevention, encourage better protection and support the recovery and reintegration of children and young people. The overall impact is one that should benefit us all.

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