World day of the fight against sexual exploitation

Every year since 2009, 4th March has been designated as World Day of the Fight Against Sexual Exploitation. Although there are exceptions, sexual exploitation overwhelmingly involves women and children, and it is a problem of worldwide proportions. It has been estimated that every second of the day an average of eight women, girls and often young boys, are trapped by international criminal networks where the sole aim is to sexually exploit them, traffic them and enslave them.

This process obviously robs them of their basic human rights, including their right to freedom, their dignity, their right to live where they choose and the right to control their own bodies.

Although the problem is a worldwide one, some places are more vulnerable than others. These include areas in Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and some Latin American and Caribbean countries. Trafficked women from these areas are generally taken to destination countries in the so-called developed world for the purposes of prostitution.

Although older teenage girls can be involved in this traffic, younger girls and boys who are involved in sexual exploitation will generally stay close to their region of origin. UNICEF estimates that more than 3 million children worldwide are affected by prostitution and that children make up more than a third of all sex workers in Asia.

Often this situation arises when poorly informed and ill-educated parents, who have no resources, are unable to raise their children under acceptable conditions. They are approached by shady characters who give them assurances that if the children are voluntarily entrusted to them they will be guaranteed a bright and better future away from their present impoverished environment.

Once they are cut off from their families and friends, the children lose their identity and become the easy prey of crime syndicates who exploit them by forcing them into sex work.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that nearly a million people are trafficked every year for purposes of sexual exploitation. Although 98% are women and girls, this number also includes a significant number of boys and young men.

The major international crimes are trafficking in drugs and weapons, but sexual trafficking follows closely behind and is now a highly lucrative international criminal industry. According to the ILO, human trafficking for sexual exploitation makes between US$ 7 billion and $12 billion a year on the initial "sale". However, once the victims of trafficking arrive in the destination country and are exploited, a further US$32 billion will be generated by the "industry".

Although huge sums of money are made, the victims rarely receive any of this, making human trafficking a modern form of slavery.

Prostitution is just one element in the sexual exploitation industry. Another is sexual tourism. In some countries, notably in Southeast Asia, restrictions have traditionally been less restrictive than in other parts of the world. This encouraged the growth of an industry where tourists, chiefly men, would travel to countries where they could indulge in sexual activity with under-age boys and girls.

In October 2012 the BBC reported that the problem of sex tourism was getting worse, with Child Protection charities warning that worldwide an estimated 250,000 people travel abroad every year for the purpose of having sex with minors. Sexual tourism is increasingly responsible for child prostitution around the world.

In the past many paedophiles were helped to escape justice by a lack of cross border legal co-operation, but in recent years there has been a crack-down on this problem as charities, the travel industry and international law enforcement agencies have been increasingly working together. In many cases it is now possible to prosecute paedophiles in their home countries for offences that have taken place overseas.

Yet another issue is child pornography. Depiction of pornographic acts involving minors is universally considered to be a major form of child abuse and for this reason it is considered to be immaterial whether the pornographic act is forced or consensual.

In most countries it is illegal to use the Internet to access material showing images of certain sexual acts, particularly those involving children or young people. In addition to its abusive nature, the bulk of this material would only have been produced following some form of coercion. Whenever such material is viewed, producers are encouraged to produce more, which in turn results in more children being abused.

World Day of the Fight Against Sexual Exploitation sets out to draw attention to this major worldwide problem. As so often happens with matters that thrive in the darker parts of society and teeter on the brink of illegality, sexual exploitation often goes unnoticed.

Even rich countries are affected. A report published in 2001 suggested that in the United States 300,000 children were running the risk of sexual exploitation that could be considered as commercial.

The sad truth is that this unpleasant trade is capable of destroying the lives of countless people every year, but it is a trade that can only function as a result of the perverse demands of others. The answer is to eliminate these demands and there will no longer be any need for supply, but that is a very uphill task.

At least by having a special day there is a chance of raising the international profile of the problem and that surely is a step in the right direction.

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