Jan 01, 2015
As 2014 draws to a close and the new year beckons, Carol Smolenski, Executive Director of ECPAT-USA (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes), shares her End of Year Message: How Far We Have Come–and Still Have to Go. As the New Year is upon us, I find myself pondering the past. Despite the gravity of this work, I have always been an optimist in the movement to protect every child’s right to grow up free from commercial sexual exploitation. One of the movement’s biggest hurdles has been the often-unspoken but fundamental belief held by many that commercial sexual exploitation of children will always exist, and there is nothing we can do about it.
ECPAT-USA exists to undermine these old understandings and to confront the passive acceptance of this human rights abuse. I have seen firsthand how very far we have come from when I first started working on this issue more than 20 years ago. Back then, there was little recognition that child sex trafficking even existed either abroad or in the United States. There was limited legislation to protect children and even less legislation aimed at the effective prosecution of exploiters. The business sector was absent from the movement, unaware of the role it could play in the battle. There was no training available for first responders, such as child welfare workers or law enforcement, to recognize and appropriately respond to victims.
And there were few services available for victims and their families. Child victims were often blamed and condemned for their own victimization. Children were unaware of the giant sex industry seeking to exploit their vulnerabilities; nor were they aware of their own power to fight it. Things have changed. Awareness- raising and training are happening across the country and indeed around the globe. Governments, nonprofit organizations, the private sector, and youth themselves are all now actively involved in learning about and working to stop child sex trafficking and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation of children. Thirty-nine U.S. companies have signed our Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct and more than 100,000 people in the travel industry have been trained.
Landmark legislation has become law, such as the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000 and, more recently, the Identifying and Protecting Children and Youth at Risk of Sex Trafficking Act. There are now hundreds of shelter beds and services available for commercially sexually exploited youth in the U.S. And young people themselves are standing up and speaking out for their rights. This change has truly been remarkable to witness. However, we must continue to gauge the success of our work. Have we truly succeeded in subverting those institutions, customs, and traditions that support this abominable practice both in the U.S. and in other countries? There still exists so much child exploitation.
Children are still being arrested for their own victimization in the adult sex market. The ever growing sex industry has become more anonymous, with the internet facilitating the exploitation of young adolescents drawn in to meet the huge demand. When these children are found, they can be arrested, demonized and blamed for their abuse. In fact, only 19 states have laws that recognize child sex trafficked youth as victims rather than criminals.
There are still too few shelters and safe havens for children because we have not been willing to adequately fund this basic protection. When the shelters are full, homeless and runaway youth have nowhere to turn at night when they are cold and hungry. They are extremely vulnerable to someone who offers them a meal and a warm bed in exchange for sex.
Children continue to be sexually abused in their homes and communities. They are further victimized when images of the abuse (commonly called child pornography) are circulated on the Internet, sold by exploiters and shared around the world. Despite it being a multi-million dollar business, victims themselves do not receive the restitution they are entitled to for their own healing.
No child, under any circumstances, under any economic system, nor in any society, should be sold for sex. No person, anywhere, should be able to get away with buying or selling children for sex. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, it never will.” In 2015, we at ECPAT-USA recommit all our energy to the struggle for every child’s right to grow up free from commercial sexual exploitation. Personally, I remain optimistic.
Click here to learn more about the issue of sexual exploitation of children around the world.
Please join us at ECPAT-USA in making many more great changes in the world. For more information, go to: http://www.ecpatusa.org/