At the 8th ECPAT International Assembly, our first ever virtual Assembly in ECPAT’s history, we held a panel discussion with ECPAT members from around the world. The topic was simple. We wanted to learn how the pandemic had impacted their work and affected the issues of child sexual exploitation in their region. Here’s what we learned.

Children have been spending increased time online, and offenders are taking advantage 

Globally, mass school closures have meant that children around the world have been spending more time online—for education as well as for entertainment. Several member organisations have noticed this correlation with the growing trend in online sexual exploitation, as offenders flock to the digital space, to groom and exploit children online. 

Our member, APLE Cambodia, along with a number of grassroots NGOs conducted a survey in June 2020 on this very issue. The survey found that 15% of children and young people reported that they had been contacted by strangers online. 2% of those children had been asked to share intimate pictures or videos by strangers online. APLE also noted that as the pandemic reduced livelihoods for many families, there was an increase in children being pushed into labour and particularly online child sexual exploitation. This highly correlated with increased referrals and reports of online grooming and child sexual abuse material to their hotline. APLE responded through large-scale awareness raising campaigns which  were aimed at both children and families. Following the success of this emergency response program, APLE noted that the online awareness campaign is likely to remain a core function, as it is unlikely that the threats children face will subside when pandemic restrictions ease. 

Our Palestine member SAWA shared similar experiences, reporting a drastic rise in issues such as cyber-bullying and online blackmailing linked to child sexual exploitation threats. With schools and other public spaces where at-risk-children could be identified and supported being closed, their helpline offering counselling sessions and advice played a vital role during the lockdown. 

Travel restriction has not stopped all traveling child sex offenders

Our member in the Dominican Republic, MAIS ECPAT, shared how travel restrictions exposed the true scale of domestic travelling child sex offenders. Whether these child sex offenders were business travellers and truck drivers, one thing was clear—international tourism was only a small part of the problem. This is a very significant revelation as ir corroborates ECPAT’s research on the sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism. Currently, the misconception that traveling child sex offenders are usually from abroad has meant that governments see the issue as a crime only committed by foreigners and tied to international travel. This means that laws are not always adequate when it comes to prosecuting domestic offenders.

With many travel and tourism businesses entirely shuttered or operating on at reduced capacity, as a result of pandemic restrictions, MAIS ECPAT used the opportunity to run an intense and focused training campaign. The aim was to be prepared, stronger, and more aware of child protection practices when the travel industry resumes operations. They worked particularly with representatives from smaller hotels and businesses, which previously had not formalised their child protection commitments.

Families locked up together indoors 

Meanwhile, the lockdowns have also meant that families were spending in the home. For some children, this has meant being trapped in abusive contexts, some even at risk of sexual abuse from within the family, by parents, siblings, or other relatives. 

MAIS ECPAT  flagged this early on as a widespread issue. To tackle this, they created and delivered a set of interventions in collaboration with the national education ministry. Through a series of weekly Whatsapp messages, crafted by psychologist, and dispersed to parents, via local teachers, content was share to help prevent sexual abuse within families and educate parents on this issue. 

Children who were already being sexually exploited are now being abandoned on the streets

In Uganda, our member UYDEL found that the lockdown meant that large numbers of children, who were already being abused and sexually exploited in karaoke bars or brothels, before the pandemic, were now being abandoned and stranded. This meant that children had to walk back long journeys to their family home, or wander the streets in search of shelter, food, and medical support. Coupled with the forced closure of UYDEL’s drop-in centres, meant that they had to rapidly reshape their support services offered to children during the pandemic. UYDEL’s services were then adapted to include short-term vocational skill training, conducting more peer-led outreach, and counselling to understand the new situation and the challenges children were facing. They adapted their communications by switching to rapid updates on pandemic related information through radio, flyers, and other methods, so that children were made aware of new support offerings.

Working together through the pandemic and beyond

All of these challenges show us one thing: Just as the landscape of child sexual exploitation has changed over the past 30 years, with the global spread of internet connectivity, with travel and tourism growing year by year – a sudden, unexpected pandemic can also shift the nature of the crime rapidly overnight and create a series of new challenges. We must be prepared to recognise these changes and shift our work to align with new realities.

Over the past year, the ECPAT Network has acquired an immeasurable amount of insight and expertise into how we can best support children at risk of sexual exploitation during a pandemic. Through the combined force of ECPAT’s 118 member organisations, spanning 102 countries across the world, we will continue sharing our knowledge and working together, and do everything we can to protect children.