Keynote Address by Kul C. Gautam
Deputy Executive Director, UNICEF
At “Sacrifice of the Innocents”—Two Films on Sexual Violence Against Children
New York, 18 October 2000
I would like to start by paying a tribute to the two filmmakers tonight—Grace Poore and Ellen Bruno. Their well-crafted films bring the issues of the abuse and exploitation of children, especially girls, to the general public in a very moving and compelling manner. They provide an in-depth look in human terms at the factors which gives rise to these violations of children’s rights, and the context in which these abuses happen.
It takes a great deal of courage and determination to do what they have done. Grace Poore is herself one of the survivors of abuse who shares her personal experience in the film. Ellen Bruno spent much of the last 20 years in Southeast Asia working in refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodia border and evidently on the Thai-Burma border, and saw the large-scale trafficking of women and children into Thailand.
A horrifying yet hidden problem
Both films address the sexual abuse of children. One is about the trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of children about which much has been said, written and even filmed. But the second one is about incest, about which very little has been documented so far. I was frankly shocked to hear about the scale of its prevalence. It must be the most closely guarded family secret in the world.
These are not new phenomena, nor are they restricted to Asia. The issue of sexual abuse concerns millions of children, both girls and boys, all over the world, who are forced, induced, or tricked into unwanted and unforgivable sexual activities.
As we will see in the film by Grace Poore, entitled “The Children We Sacrifice”, the perpetrators are often within the immediate environment of the child, either within the nuclear family or the extended family, or among friends of the family, teachers, employers and caregivers.
Children who are working outside their homes – as domestic workers, in shops or on the street – are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. Sexual abuse becomes sexual exploitation when a second or third party benefits through sexual activity involving a child. This may include prostitution and child pornography.
The film by Ellen Bruno, entitled “Sacrifice”, focuses on child trafficking which is part of the problem of child sexual exploitation. One of the strong points of the film is that it shows the environment and daily life situations in which the children were brought up, their vulnerability, and the factors leading to their being trafficked.
We hear in the film “Sacrifice” a heart-wrenching story by one of the girls of how there was nothing to eat in the village, no services, no doctors. So many poor children see very few options for themselves and their families. In Asia, as in many other societies, children, especially girls, feel a sense of duty and a certain obligation to contribute to the family. The only thing they feel they have the power to do sometimes is to sacrifice themselves, and this concept of sacrifice notably appears in the title of both films.
Scale of the problem
Because it is such a hidden issue, there are no exact numbers of children sexually abused or exposed to commercial sexual exploitation. The topic is sensitive, and research has been limited.
Yet it is clear that commercial sexual exploitation is a modern form of slavery. And here are some staggering estimated figures about the scale of this slave trade: According to the Centre for International Crime Prevention, 12 million Africans were sold as slaves to the New World over three centuries, between the 16th and the 19th centuries. Compare that with this figure: it is estimated that trafficking in children and women for commercial sexual purposes in Asia and the Pacific alone has victimised over 30 million people over the last three decades.
We are, ladies and gentlemen, speaking about the largest slave trade in history carried out using even more cruel and devious means than the original slave trade. Worse still, experts attest to the fact that commercial sexual exploitation of children is actually increasing.
Built on greed and the abuse of power, the trafficking of children and women has become a worldwide, multi-billion-dollar industry.
In the Asia-Pacific region, some of the contributing factors have been rapid urbanisation, deepening poverty, the break-up of traditional families, loss of community, and a rise in consumerist values.
An estimated one million children, mainly girls but also a significant number of boys, enter the commercial sex trade every year.
In this age of computer-driven culture, trafficking is even becoming high-tech, with child pornography, sex tourism information and mail-order brides offered openly on the Internet.
Impact on Children
The effects of sexual abuse and exploitation on children are profound, and may be permanent. Normal sexual, physical and emotional development is compromised. Self-esteem and confidence are undermined. Violence, drugs and sexually transmitted diseases, including now HIV/AIDS, only heighten their vulnerability.
When the abuse of a child becomes exposed, or when trafficked children return home, they are likely to be even further victimised, stigmatised, sometimes even ostracised by their own families and communities.
Furthermore, the vast majority of sexually exploited children are often denied access to a whole host of other basic human rights—to education, to proper health care—and even to the briefest moments of leisure and play.
First Break the Silence
Now, the question is what can be done—is there anything being done about this horrendous problem—this terrible scar on our human civilisation?
To tackle the deeply entrenched and growing problem of sexual abuse and exploitation of children, the first step must be to break the silence around it.
This first step on the thousand-mile journey can be one of the hardest to take. This is particularly true in the case of sexual abuse within the household—the ugly phenomenon of incest—where abuse is being perpetrated by those responsible for the care and protection of children. Sex is a complex and emotional issue to begin with, and discussion about it in the family is usually taboo.
Yet, as expressed compellingly by the survivors in Grace Poore’s film, the path to survival starts with open discussion about the problem, which is necessary in order to confront the problem, to come to terms with it, to address it, and to move beyond it.
Initiatives Supported by UNICEF
While breaking the silence is the first step, a comprehensive approach is needed so that children who have been sexually abused or exploited have the support and protection to which they have a right.
My organisation, UNICEF, together with our many partners, are guided by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides an international framework for the protection of children against sexual abuse and exploitation.
Translating rights and principles into reality can sometimes collide head-on with hard realities on the ground. However, together with our partners, we are finding some ways forward.
UNICEF’s basic approach to the crisis of child sexual abuse and exploitation is two-fold. We support initiatives that decrease the risks of sexual abuse and exploitation through providing better access to education, and support for legislation and enforcement. We also try to ensure that children trapped in abusive or exploitative situations are freed from those situations, and have access to legal aid, protection, secure housing, economic assistance, counselling, and health and social services, including helping them recover, both physically and psychologically, from their ordeal.
We have been supporting programmes at both global and local levels to this end. First, at the international level, activities and actions have included:
Before I conclude, I would also like to commend the tremendous work of the NGO community which deserves immense credit for having had the vision and the courage to take up the cause of sexually abused and exploited children a long time ago. Together with the media, they have been playing a critical role in bringing these issues to the forefront of public attention.
But more, much more, needs to be done.
In all of this, we need to strengthen co-operation and action at every level of every society. Governments and civil society need to keep the pressure up. That is why UNICEF is working with the NGO group, ECPAT, and the Government of Japan to organise a follow-up conference to the 1996 Stockholm World Congress against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, planned to be held in Yokohama in December next year.
The global movement that produced the Convention on the Rights of the Child has helped generate pressure to protect the rights of all children, including children in war; children performing hazardous or exploitative labour; children exposed to violence; children in extreme poverty; and indigenous and disabled children.
It is up to all of us to see to it that the elimination of child sexual abuse and exploitation is accorded an urgent priority. In this regard, I would like to applaud the Asia Society for initiating this series of film shows and discussions, and the many film makers including the two whose films we will see tonight, Ellen Bruno and Grace Poore, for their efforts and their skill in communicating the reality and the urgent need to address these compelling priority issues of our times.