From selling souvenirs on Kenya’s beaches to working as porters in the mountains of Nepal, children make up a considerable portion of the international tourism industry’s work force—as much as 10 to 15 percent in parts of the world. In the shadows of this industry, though, exists a disturbing, hidden market—one that allows travelers and tourists to sexually abuse children with anonymity. The sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism, sometimes referred to as child sex tourism, is a growing practice, consisting of the abuse of minors by tourists and travelers in exchange for some form of compensation. In an increasingly globalized world, this practice is only spreading; however, it has hardly been studied. This abuse is a leading violation of children’s rights, and no part of the world is immune to it.
Globalization and the development of the internet have facilitated travel and communication, but in doing so, they have also increased child exploitation. While the sexual trafficking and abuse of children is common in traditional sex tourism “hotspots” like Thailand, networks for this crime are growing throughout the world, from Latin America to Africa to Eastern Europe, and even in industrialized, wealthy nations. Speaking with the HPR, Jacqueline Bhabha, a professor of the practice of health and human rights at the Harvard, pointed out that “this type of sexual exploitation doesn’t only happen in tourist destinations like Thailand or Laos, it also happens in Cambridge, Massachusetts.” Given the complicated and widespread nature of the sexual exploitation of children, most experts call for holistic and comprehensive approaches to eradicating it, advocating for the inclusion of various institutions and voices, from lawmakers to grandparents, in the creation of solutions.
A comprehensive global study on the sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism completed by End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism, an international NGO, emphasizes that there is no “typical” perpetrator—they can be domestic or foreign travelers, and while some also commit similar crimes when at home, many do not. Surprisingly, though, the study found that the majority of perpetrators do not travel with the intention or sole purpose of committing these crimes. Instead, they tend to be normal travelers, including businessmen and academics, who decide to engage in the sexual abuse of minors more spontaneously while in tourist mindsets. In an interview with the HPR, Michelle Gulebart, director of private sector engagement at ECPAT, explained that widespread stereotypes around traditional sex offenders translate into misconceptions about the perpetrators of child sex tourism. Many of these criminals, she said, are “not what we would think of as pedophiles or child sex tourists—they’re people who aren’t usually attracted to children, and yet in the situation, they’re exploiting children.”
Empowered by a sense of anonymity and impunity, perpetrators who would not necessarily exploit children under normal circumstances commit acts of sexual violence while traveling. Clara Sommarin, a child prostitution specialist at UNICEF, explored the shift in mindset that can occur when traveling. “This exploitation is about norms, and when you go outside of your country, perhaps you believe that the same norms and expectations don’t apply,” she told the HPR.
And while the sexual abuse of children is a heinous act in and of itself, perpetrators also often exhibit a sense of racial superiority over their victims. Some Han men in China, for instance, are known to travel to areas dominated by the minority Mosuo tribe, whose women are highly sexualized in Chinese culture from a young age, according to the ECPAT report. In these areas, a tourist infrastructure has developed to serve this form of sex tourism, which relies on perpetrators’ belief in stereotypes about the sexual availability of young Mosuo girls. The racial prejudice exhibited in this context is one form of a trend that ECPAT’s report calls “social distancing,” which allows perpetrators to dehumanize their victims, thereby convincing themselves that their behavior is acceptable. Travel plays an integral role in this dehumanization, as the mindset is made easier to develop by visiting foreign places with different customs and cultures from one’s own—convincing oneself that normally taboo behavior is somehow morally acceptable becomes increasingly easy in unfamiliar cities.
Just as perpetrators defy many of the traditional stereotypes around pedophilia and sexual exploitation, victims are also difficult to characterize. According to Gulebart, factors like poverty, homelessness, neglect, and discrimination do place some children at higher risk than others for becoming victims of sex trafficking. Furthermore, she shared that children who have been sexually or physically abused in their home environment are more likely to become sex workers than those who have been raised in non-abusive households. According to Bhabha, being part of a stigmatized community can also exacerbate vulnerability, as “the phenomenon of sex tourism depends on a kind of racist assumption, one in which perpetrators think, ‘well these aren’t really children like our children’ and undergo a process of self-delusion about the gravity of what’s being done..
The ECPAT’s report outlines the various strategies that traffickers and intermediaries have developed for luring children into the sex trade. These range from offering shelter, food, and money, to addicting children to drugs in order to keep them dependent on the income of sex work. While ECPAT’s data reveals that boys and girls are almost equally likely to become victims of sexual exploitation by tourists and travelers, they also found that boys are less likely to report the abuse because of widespread cultural norms around self-sufficiency. Sommarin pointed out that some obstacles are more daunting for boys. “It is such a hidden and stigmatized problem, and so many boys don’t come forward, and they don’t tell anyone. If they do tell, furthermore, they tend to not get the attention that the girls get.”
Legal burdens create another obstacle that the victims of this exploitation must overcome. Gulebart criticized laws that punish children for being victims of trafficking and abuse. “Internationally, children in the sex trade, who are in fact sexually abused children, are often shamed and treated like criminals.” Exploiters end up benefitting from these laws, as they can threaten victims with the risk of arrest. And ultimately, according to Gulebart, victims often end up staying in the trade for long periods of time because they fear being shunned at home.
Families and communities can be either powerful sources of intervention and prevention or part of the problem. Sometimes, according to Sommarin, the family or community facilitates the abuse because of desperation created by economic stress. Parents may be lured, perhaps by a distant family member or an acquaintance within the community, into sending their child to work in a city. These families are often, though not always, unaware of the true circumstances that their child will face.
In other cases, fake orphanages develop as fronts for this form of exploitation, explained Damian Brosnan, program coordinator at The Code, an NGO focused on private-sector intervention and training. Brosnan described to the HPR instances in which “parents will be enticed to place their children in the orphanage in order to attract visitors and funds, and the family will receive some of that financial compensation,” not knowing the actual conditions in which their children will be living.
Because families and communities are so often involved in the child’s path towards sexual exploitation, community-level interventions can be a powerful weapon in fighting it. Sommarin advocates for this type of approach, arguing that “one of the most important things to do is to work with the family, with local communities, and with the children themselves to raise awareness about this problem, how to prevent it, and where to report it.”
Effective programs to address and eradicate sexual exploitation are difficult to develop, but not impossible. The Code, for instance, creates awareness and accountability within the tourism industry by encouraging tourism companies and hotels to develop the skills needed to notice and respond to sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. According to its website, signing The Code involves committing to “establish a policy and procedures, train employees, include a clause in contracts stating a zero tolerance policy of sexual exploitation of children, provide information to travelers, and report annually on implementation.” Brosnan described it as a sort of “initiative to bridge the gap between the world of NGOs and the UN, where child protection specialists work, and the business world, where travel and tourism companies do want to do the right thing.” When coupled with legislative advocacy focused on the decriminalization of victimhood of this abuse and the enforcement of laws criminalizing perpetrators’ behavior, this form of private-sector intervention can be a powerful tool in reducing rates of sexual exploitation of children in tourism.
According to Gulebart, preventative interventions, ranging from education on the risks of sex trafficking to programs that target risk factors like poverty, homelessness, and neglect can also help lower rates of sexual exploitation for future generations. Echoing the need for prevention, Bhabha raised concerns about the typical responses to sexual exploitation: “it’s really complex to intervene without re-traumatizing the child, and classic rescue approaches are often very harmful—you need to be careful in how you substitute an alternative environment that is less harmful and more protective.” She advocates a holistic approach that “[brings] together institutions that work on poverty, institutions that work on family, that work on criminalization, education, skill training, gender, racial discrimination.”
Private citizens who travel to countries where the sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism is common can do their part by developing an awareness of the signs of abuse. Furthermore, traveling with companies that are party to The Code or similar commitments ensures that crimes, when reported, will be addressed and investigated. “Being an aware traveler is the first step towards being a responsible traveler,” said Brosnan. In addition to identifying and reporting potentially abusive situations, he encourages travelers to refrain from engaging in behavior that in fact puts children at risk, from giving money to begging children to visiting orphanages to frequenting businesses which rely on child labor. “Despite people’s best intentions—and the majority of people who visit these places do have the best intentions—they are supporting an industry which is putting children at risk and which is really damaging to the family and the community,” Brosnan explained. Legislatures, companies, and individual travelers each hold some responsibility for addressing this global phenomenon, and it is only through a holistic, cooperative effort among all three that the sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism can be addressed and eventually eliminated.
Image Source: Flickr/Nasim Fekrat