Keeping the door shut on child sexual exploitation

Four days ago, a worrying research — based on the perceptions of frontline welfare workers who deal with child sexual exploitation cases — was released simultaneously in Fiji and Bangkok.

A total of 84 welfare workers representing Samoa, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Tonga were questioned about their work this year and their feedback was recorded by E.C.P.A.T. International. 

E.C.P.A.T. — (formerly End Child Prostitution and Trafficking) a global network of civil society organisations that work to end the sexual exploitation of children — released a damning 22-page report based on the feedback of the 84 welfare workers.

The Samoa Observer published details of the report’s findings in the June 12, 2019 edition under the headline “Most child sexual exploitation cases in Pacific committed by men — survey”.

According to the article, 12 frontline welfare workers from Samoa were among 72 from Fiji, Tonga, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Kiribati who participated in the online survey and responded to 60 multiple choice questions. 

“Seventy-two (85 per cent) of the participants reporting seeing child sexual exploitation in the last 12 months,” stated the report. 

“Between them, the workers had seen almost 760 cases of child sexual exploitation — around 7 per cent of their total welfare caseload.

“Two thirds of victims (68 per cent) were girls, and as many as 32 per cent of cases involved boys."

The participants had indicated that the offenders are most likely to be a family member. 

“Offenders were most likely to be from the child’s extended family, including grandparents, uncles/aunts, cousins, and siblings. Parents/step-parents and community members were the next most common categories of perpetrator. 

“One participant explained that offenders who sexually exploit children were often ‘those who the children have trusted most. They were breadwinners of the whole family as well as tuition fees providers’.” 

Tragically, the report is not the first one to be published on child sexual exploitation in the Pacific Islands, and is unlikely to be the last. And we can already notice some common elements in this report, when compared to the findings of other reports and cases that the newspaper has published over the years.

The first one is that most of the victims are girls (while over 30 per cent of the cases involve boys), the offenders are most likely to be a family member, and overwhelmingly most if not all of the offenders (93 per cent) are males.

They are worrying statistics that parents and guardians in Samoa should take note off, and while we accept that the E.C.P.A.T. report was written from a regional perspective, we should not dismiss its findings and assume that all is okay at home and even in school.

Looking at the Samoan context and the vulnerabilities that young girls face in the community, the plight of the child vendors of Apia — who get to walk the length and breadth of the Samoan capital Monday to Saturday in the hope of making a sale — immediately comes to mind. 

A lot has been written about this group of vulnerable children, whose parents are often criticised, for forcing their children to sell goods in supermarket or even nightclub carparks late into the night and putting their young lives at risk. Increasing concerns for their safety has led to non-government organisation Samoa Victim Support Group (S.V.S.G.) teaming up with the International Labour Organisation (I.L.O.) and the relevant Government ministries to address some of the challenges. But will these programmes keep them off the streets of Apia and out of harm’s way?

In July last year, the Government increased excise on locally-produced vodka by 100 per cent as part of an attempt to address the growing incidence of alcohol-related violence. The Minister of Revenue, Tialavea Tionisio Hunt, said the recommendations to increase the excise was based on a report submitted to the Cabinet by the Police. 

Alarmingly, the “working environment” in Apia for Samoa’s child vendors, is becoming hazardous. The increase in alcohol-related violence in the last six-eight months — within and outside some of the capital’s entertainment venues including car parks — is exposing child vendors to the risk of violence.  And with parents nowhere in sight late in the night, the risks of them falling victim to other crimes including sexual exploitation are high. Exposure to alcohol abuse, even at a very young age when they are expected to fend for themselves while selling their goods, should also not be ruled out.

The publishing of the E.C.P.A.T. report is a good opportunity for the Government and its partners to revisit the issue of child sexual exploitation and work on a long-term solution to the practice of “child vending”, which a lot of Samoan parents use to expose their loved ones to the dangers in the darkness.

Have a lovely Friday Samoa and God bless.

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