Photo courtesy of UNICEF

Child sexual abuse and exploitation have devastating and enduring impacts and affect children from all socioeconomic backgrounds. However, research indicates that a number of groups such as LGBTQ youth, children with physical and emotional vulnerabilities and homeless and runaway children are at increased risk of victimization.

In the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power, child abuse and child maltreatment are defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “All forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development, or dignity.” A person who engages in child abuse is a person who has caused or deliberately enabled the abuse of a child. Usually when we hear the word perpetrator or abuser, we think of a criminal who is waiting on the corner of a street to abuse the child. But the researches proves otherwise: 60% of the perpetrators are known to the child, who can be a family friend, a teacher or a neighbor and 30% of the perpetrators are from the family while only 10% of the perpetrators are unknown people such as a van driver or a passenger in a bus.

The two most successful approaches to stop abuse, according to research, are adult education and training as well as child skill development. Parental participation and school based initiatives work together to provide benefits that are greater than each strategy working alone.

When training adults, the goals are to give them the knowledge and skills to identify the signs of abuse, make appropriate referrals and create strong bonds that encourage communication with children. Research shows that when parents or other caring adults teach children about sexual abuse, they decrease the likelihood that the child will be victimized.

The objectives when concentrating on children are to raise their knowledge of and use of preventative measures as well as to foster an environment that is empowering and encourages higher disclosure rates. The chance of a child reporting abuse serves as a big deterrent to abusers who are less likely to target a child who has a high sense of self-worth and seems less susceptible. As a result, it’s essential to raise the child’s self-esteem while also teaching them about safety precautions.

Young people in Sri Lanka have a limited knowledge about their sexual and reproductive health. According to the Family Health Bureau, teenage pregnancies in Sri Lanka is at 5.2%. According to UNICEF, 66% of girls in Sri Lanka are not aware of menstruation until menarche. Dr. Rasanjali Hettiarachchi, Director of the National STD and AIDS Control Programme has stated that 50 cases of HIV positive incidents have been reported in the first nine months of the year including three school children. Due to these reasons and rapidly rising child abuse incidents, it is obvious that there should age appropriate sex education in the school curriculum.

However, preventing child sexual exploitation and abuse cannot be done by a single individual or an organization or with one single action. It necessitates a multi stakeholder strategy that starts at the policy level and works its way down. In this era of modernization that is undergoing rapid change, policies must be adjusted consistently to center around the well-being of the child.

Even when proper protection services and mechanisms are present and functioning well from public and non-governmental stakeholders, community involvement in child protection is essential. In collaboration with service providers, adults and children in a community are best suited to pinpoint specific protection related problems and provide the best possible solutions. Communities’ views and behaviors toward children such as how they view child sexual exploitation and abuse can also play a crucial role in further increasing/normalizing child abuse and exploitation. An efficient child protection system must interact with and alter such community perceptions while cooperating with the community itself in order to fulfill children’s rights towards protection.

To ensure that every child in the nation has access to their rights, all citizens must be held accountable. Some global organizations and movements such as UNICEF aim to guarantee that these rights are extended to all children including underprivileged children, girl children, street children, children forced into prostitution, children with physical and mental disabilities and children in juvenile institutions. In addition to the institutions that guarantee this right, citizens have a responsibility to uphold their end of responsible parenthood and state governments must continue to uphold the status quo. It is equivalent to violating everyone’s rights to violate a child’s rights.

Sahan Wiratunga is Senior Project Officer at PEaCE/ECPAT Sri Lanka