While the practice of child sex tourism can erode the moral integrity of our nation, the greatest victims are of course, the defenceless children, their voices unheard, their stories untold, their plight implacable, and their innocence stolen. They must endure the immediate and long-term emotional, psychological, and physical impact of sexual exploitation. To make matters even worse, in areas with limited educational opportunities, people are ill-informed of the health risks and the severe long-term psychological harm that is inflicted on children who are sexually exploited. Perhaps even more disturbing, however, is the nature of how many of these children are forced into the sex trades although the family is traditionally a child’s first line of defence, in some cases children are sold into the sex trade by someone they know and trust
Child-sex tourism is commonly defined as the “sexual exploitation of children by a person or persons who travel from their home district, home geographical region, or home country in order to have sexual contact with children”. Travelling to exploit children does not necessarily imply crossing into another country, because domestic travellers can also sexually exploit children in their own country
The full extent of child sex tourism and exploitation in Sri Lanka has been difficult to document because of its covert nature. We have not conducted any in-depth research on the subject during the past decade and, therefore, studies conducted long ago cannot be used as a true indicator of the situation now. Nobody will deny that we have an issue of child sex tourism but to what extent its prevalent is anybody’s guess. Naturally, children’s rights activists are saying that a comprehensive research is long overdue.
The commercial sexual exploitation of children is possible largely because of economic disparities. But weak laws and corrupt law enforcement also allow for the trade to flourish. While other factors such as globalisation and new communications technology promote an unregulated industry and exchange which advises on meeting grounds for predators stalking children.
The development of the tourist industry is also another reason for rapid growth in the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Yet, the tourism industry itself is not the main cause of child exploitation but its nature provides all the necessary factors, such as erosion of traditional values and socio-cultural norms, opportunities to earn a quick “buck,” exposure to nudity, relationships between adults and children/men and women and increased demand for sex services from domestic and foreign tourists.
Child sex tourism is also very much linked to the prostitution of children, trafficking of children and the production of child pornography.
The negative impact of commercial sexual exploitation of children is profound and often permanent. For those who survive, it may cause irreparable damage to their physical and mental health. Child victims are inadequately protected because of loopholes in legislation and a lack of law enforcement. They are often treated as criminals and left with little recourse other than to re-enter a vicious cycle of abuse and exploitation, which escalates the risk to their very existence. Although it may be tempting to place the blame mainly on parents as socially irresponsible or children themselves as sexually irresponsible, no sector of society can escape responsibility for the sexual exploitation of children.
So, what really can be done? Tackling the issue of child-sex tourism is not the responsibility of a single sector or stakeholder. In fact, many different actors must join hands in order to construct an effective front line against child-sex tourism. Travel and accommodation service providers can play a direct role towards preventing child-sex tourism. Non-governmental organisations and child-rights agencies that focus on children’s rights, welfare and safety must by definition be actively involved in the fight against child-sex tourism. Government, whose primary function is to ensure the well-being of citizens, must be actively involved as well.
Code of conduct
It is time all these organisations meet together at one focal point and share each one’s knowledge, experiences and successful models in the prevention of commercial sexual exploitation of children and adolescents in the context of travel and tourism. Such a meeting can offer a unique opportunity to –by means of presentations and group work– analyse the role that the travel and tourism sector may play in the struggle against commercial sexual exploitation of children and adolescents.
The final result of the meeting will be, on the one hand, a draft plan of action against the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the tourism sector, and on the other hand, a Code of Conduct for the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation in Tourism in our country to be adopted by all stake holders.
Given that the purpose of tourism is to contribute to economic, social and human development, the framework of this plan of action and the Code of Conduct will bring awareness raising and education while the training activities can be carried out at regional and national levels in the tourism sector. Eventually, this will allow Sri Lanka to present itself to the world as an attractive tourism destination that protects its cultural heritage, the environment, and most importantly, the dignity of children and adolescents of our country.
A classic example how we should move forward with Code of Conduct comes from ECPAT International (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes). This is a global network of civil society organisations exclusively dedicated to ending the commercial sexual exploitation of children. The organisation drew up a Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism, and invited companies to become incorporated into its ethical policy guidelines. Initially, the code was directed solely towards tour operators but subsequently extended to the entire tourism sector with the goal of including travel agencies, hotels, and airline companies.
The specific objectives of the Code of Conduct are: (a) to establish an ethical policy regarding the commercial sexual exploitation of children; (b) to train personnel in the country of origin and travel destinations; (c) to provide information to travellers by means of catalogues, brochures, in-flight films, ticket-slips, home pages, etc.; (d) to provide information to local “key persons” at the destinations; and (e) to annually report on progress being made.
The signatory companies to the Code of Conduct also commit to include a clause in all contracts with suppliers and clients, stating a common repudiation of commercial sexual exploitation of children and adolescents. The inclusion of this clause has become generalised to virtually all contracts that are currently being signed by tour operators in Europe and almost all operators in South East Asia.
Several best practices are identified on how to protect children against sexual exploitation in tourism in a multi-stakeholder setting.
(1) Development of training materials
The Government must work with professionals to create new training modules. Involving industry partners in developing training modules creates involvement and commitment and makes the training modules more effective.
(2) Youth participation
Youth conferences and rallies could be organised in which youth talked to entrepreneurs and tourists about their peers who are less fortunate, and they can help distributing information materials. Such participation of youth result in positive reactions and a high visibility of the awareness raising materials
(3) Support of Local governments
The cooperation with local governments can lead to much additional support. The local government authorities can invite professionals to participate in presentations and trainings to their members. They can also open hot lines to report sexual exploitation of children.
(4) Law enforcement
The strong presence of law enforcement representatives in the trainings will give participants more confidence that there is willingness from authorities to tackle the problem and this motivated them to report cases in the future.
(5) Stakeholders outside the tourism industry
Since children are often lured outside the tourism industry, it is advisable to invite many other sectors to the seminars conducted. The trainings of fruit vendors, craft market workers and taxi drivers will lead to a high awareness amongst tourism entrepreneurs throughout the chain. Most of these small-scale entrepreneurs have direct contact with tourists and work at places where children are recruited for sex tourism.
(6) Community involvement
We must give very much more attention for community involvement. This is important to break the silence around sexual exploitation of children and to inform children and parents about signals of traffickers, consequences of sexual exploitation, how to prevent and report it and where to find support. Community involvement is also important to create efficient pressure on local government and the tourism industry to take child protection measures.
(7) Training of future managers
Educational seminars for post-secondary students in schools is an effective way to change the attitude of the next generation of tourism professionals towards sexual exploitation of children in tourism.
While the practice of child sex tourism can erode the moral integrity of our nation, the greatest victims are of course, the defenceless children, their voices unheard, their stories untold, their plight implacable, and their innocence stolen. They must endure the immediate and long-term emotional, psychological, and physical impact of sexual exploitation.
To make matters even worse, in areas with limited educational opportunities, people are ill-informed of the health risks and the severe long-term psychological harm that is inflicted on children who are sexually exploited. Perhaps even more disturbing, however, is the nature of how many of these children are forced into the sex trades although the family is traditionally a child’s first line of defence, in some cases children are sold into the sex trade by someone they know and trust.
Clearly then, this is a pervasive problem that cannot be ignored any more.