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Tackling Child Commercial Sexual Exploitation

As the UN Advisory Group on Sex Work and HIV turns its attention toward young people and sex work Cheryl Overs reflects on what is known about child commercial sexual exploitation and how sex workers are organising to prevent it.

I was a prostitute before I was even a woman. I began when I was 10-years-old and I have experienced things you cannot imagine. I know I cannot erase my past, but I can help stop other children from going through the same experience,” said Damaris, who came together with four other sex workers, ages 18 to 49, to speak to a group of taxi drivers.[1]

Paying children for sex is always child abuse and ideally people under the age of consent should not sell sex. Laws against child abuse and the involvement of young people in commercial sex, including age of consent laws are universal. Nevertheless young people continue to sell sexual services in most parts of the world.

The extent and exact nature of commercial child sexual abuse is unknown and the evidence base is unreliable because of the difficulties of collecting data. But we know that it is widespread and that it happens in different ways in different places – from individual acts of abuse to organised and international crime gangs. 

Programmes to tackle child commercial sexual abuse

Understanding and tackling child commercial sexual abuse is made difficult by lack of a clear definition of a child or a young person. Sometimes children are defined as people under 18 years of age, but this can be problematic for organisations and individuals working with sex workers, especially in places where economic independence and sexual and reproductive life begin soon after puberty. NGOs and welfare agencies are faced daily with men, women and transgendered people under 18 who are sexually active, including for money, and must make difficult decisions about how to respond. Less frequently services encounter children and young teenagers selling sex. When they do it entails a different set of decisions and interventions. Children who have been subject to, or at risk of, sexual abuse need a different set of protections and services to older minors. Both groups need a combination of improved policy and multi sectoral interventions.[2]

Few agencies are resourced to play this role properly in all but the richest countries and in most cases, sexual exploitation may be just one of a number of issues and needs faced by the abused child. They may be affected by issues such as drug misuse, premature pregnancy, health risks associated with homelessness as well as violence and persecution by police, their families and others. According to Will Rockwell of the NSWP useful interventions with young people who sell sex are hampered by the fact that they ‘face the double threat of criminalization and the resultant state or state-ordered custody as a product of ‘age of majority’ laws… Current policies around the forced ‘rehabilitation,’ incarceration and mandatory reporting of young people involved in the sex trade only compound the special vulnerability of young women and men, including transgender persons, to HIV/AIDS, exploitation and violence.’[3]

Responses from sex worker groups

Throughout the developing world sex workers often raise their children in conditions that render both boys and girls more vulnerable to abuse. Like many poor and marginalised people earning subsistence wages it can be difficult for them to secure appropriate housing to keep their children safe. In some countries, sex workers lack the documents they need to enrol their children in school, which obviously limits their children’s future options and perpetuates poverty across generations. Sex workers have adopted different strategies to try and overcome these challenges. Sometimes mothers send their children to safe shelters or give them over to relatives or orphanages to keep them safe. This of course may involve significant cost and the sacrifice of not seeing their child, because of distance or prohibitive visiting rules. Sometimes, women are prevented from reuniting with their children.[4]

Sex workers are invested in ending child abuse in their industry and communities but there is little research that reviews the strategies that adult sex workers are using to prevent child commercial sexual abuse. Recent news from Colombia’s port city and popular tourist destination, Cartagena reminds us that adult sex workers mobilising to protect children from sexual abuse is a powerful strategy. Through “The Wall, It Is Me” campaign they are engaging residents and the tourist industry to protect children from paedophiles.[5]

In Ethiopia in Bihar Dar, in a slum named Koshakosh in which almost all dwellings are used for sex work, a self regulating committee, organised with the help of local police, appoints monitors to ensure that no sexual abuse of the girl children occurs.[6]

Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) is a sex worker organisation whose objectives are recognition of sex workers as workers, securing socio-economic status for sex workers and increasing life choices for their children. Since 1997 DMSC has implemented strategies to combat the trafficking of underage girls and unwilling women who have been duped/coerced/forced into sex work. A system of Self-Regulatory Boards have been successful in combating the trafficking of underage girls and unwilling women. Sites where Self-Regulatory Boards operate have witnessed a significant decrease in the number of underage girls and an increase in the median age of sex workers.[7]

Where the political will exists some of the organised abuse of children can be stopped. Ending police corruption is key. In one well known case an entire village in Cambodia, Svay Pak, was given over to brothels of young Vietnamese women, mostly in debt bondage, and open sexual abuse of young children on its streets by paedophile sex tourists.[8] The sex industry in the village was operated by police so actions to end police corruption proved successful in returning Svay Pak to normality.


The commercial sexual exploitation of children should not be seen as sex work, but as abuse. That sex work is not a suitable job for children does not mean that sex work is not work. Most parents want their children to have better jobs than them when they reach maturity and sex workers are no different. They are best placed to ensure a better future for their children if they have full rights and are not criminalised and trapped in poverty.

[2] Overs C. and Castle C. (2005) Sex, drugs and vulnerability – young people who sell sex and use drugs in in Aggleton P.,  Ball   A., Mane P. (eds), Sex, Drugs and Young People International Perspectives Oxon: Routledge.

[3] Rockwell, W. (2010) Wards of the state: Young sex workers’ special vulnerability to HIV and AIDS under the law, http://www.plri.org/sites/plri.org/files/WardsoftheState.pdf

[4] Chilla: A Roosting Place for Sex Workers’ Children. www.ashanet.org/princeton/diaries/projex/archives/000121.html

[6] Overs C., Alemayehu B., Hawkins K., and Moody N. (2011) Sex work in Ethiopia: Mapping the impact of law, policy and enforcement practices, Paulo Longo Research Initiative. Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights, Monash University 

[7] Gayen, S. (2006) “Innovative approaches to combat trafficking of women in the sex trade”, Inter-Asia cultural studies, vol.7, no.2 pp.331-337; Bandyopadhyay, N (2008) Streetwalkers Show the Way: Reframing the Global Debate on Trafficking from Sex Workers’ Perspectives, IDS Working Paper 309, http://www.ids.ac.uk/files/Wp309.pdf

[8] Busza, J (2006) Having the rug pulled from under your feet: one project’s experience of the US policy reversal on sex work, Health Policy Plan. 21 (4): 329-332