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When indifference means acceptance: Sexual abuse of children and adolescents

© UNICEF El Salvador/2007/G.Bell

By Nils Kastberg, Regional Director of UNICEF for Latin America and the Caribbean

An exploited child is the last link in a series of rights violations that have not been protected. Violence, neglect and abuse lead to child sexual exploitation. 

Panama, November 2008 - Every hour of every day 228 children and adolescents, mainly girls, are sexually exploited in Latin America and the Caribbean. This week, as we commemorate World Day Against Child Abuse, we have to raise our voices against this social scourge. This date reminds us of the pressing need to ensure the right of children to have their rights within a protective environment. It's time to recognize the magnitude of this problem and act accordingly.

Information gathered from various countries in Latin America and the Caribbean shows that between 70 and 80 per cent of victims of sexual abuse are girls, that in 50 per cent of the cases of abuse the perpetrators live under the same roof as the victims and that 75 per cent of the perpetrators are close relatives of the victims. When the perpetrator has a set of keys to the house of the victim society can no longer afford to remain indifferent.

When we talk about abuse we must also talk about the men who often perpetrate it. Machismo, combined with gender-based violence, often precedes violence against children. We need a movement made of men who repudiate this so-called masculinity, who make it clear that girls are not sex toys for adults.

Families are the first line of defense against abuse, so it is imperative to give them the necessary tools to protect their children. Many mothers know that their husbands are abusing their children, yet they  chose to remain silent because they know that they could not support their children on their own. Financial aid for victims is crucial if we want to ensure justice for cases of abuse and it should be established as a priority for countries that want to work seriously to eradicate this problem.

From 25 to November 28, Brazil will host the Third World Congress against Sexual Exploitation of Children. For the first time in Latin America, representatives from 150 countries will come together with governments, civil society, international agencies and groups of adolescents, in pursuit of concrete goals in order to end child sexual exploitation.

Over the past years there was progress in the region. Several countries established plans of action for the eradication of sexual exploitation of children, almost all countries penalized the production of child pornography, more and more countries are launching hotlines for victims and promoting the involvement of the private sector and the tourism industry to generate preventive actions. Still, sexual exploitation, trafficking, abuse and violence remain a reality for millions of children and adolescents in the region.

If we truly want to build protective environments for children and adolescents, it is necessary to improve coordination among schools, health services, justice systems, police and border services. There is no single action that can eradicate the exploitation and abuse, it requires multiple coordinated approaches and an active leadership.

Legislative frameworks need to be improved and existing laws need to be enforced. Moreover the process needs to be accompanied by a change in attitude to avoid impunity for those who commit these crimes.

Lack of accurate information further aggravates the situation. We urge governments to invest in systems to measure the dimension of this problem. Only by knowing the extent of abuse of children in their countries will they be able to plan and budget the appropriate interventions.

Despite more than a decade of global efforts sexual exploitation grows, and with every new technology that is created, new methods are invented to exploit children. If we want to have any chance to catch up and overcome these new challenges, we must accelerate the pace of our actions. It is time for society to be ashamed of these practices, because remaining indifferent means that we continue to accept them.

The World Congress in Brazil offers a historic opportunity to address this issue. We urge religious, political and social leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro, to break the silence against abuse, assuming their role and positioning their voices to ensure that every child has the right to live protected from exploitation and abuse.

For further information
María Jose Ravalli, mjravalli@unicef.org, UNICEF Latin America and Caribbean
Eva Lotta, elotta@unicef.org, UNICEF Latin America and Caribbean


UNICEF is on the ground in over 150 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence.  The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS.  UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.


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