Real lives

Early Childhood Development

Child protection


Quality Basic Education


Health and Nutrition


The Pacific’s Hidden Trade

© Photo: RRRT/UNDP
Kiribati...commercial sex is fuelled by crews of foreign fishing boats berthed at Betio wharf

By Hannah Harborow

“Many people are hungry in Vila. That’s why we do it. In a yard close to mine, there are about 20 kids and the mother and the older girls are all having sex for money. If a client comes, and the mother is busy or not available or something, then one of the daughters will take the client and between us all we feed the children.”

26-year-old sex worker, Port Vila, Vanuatu

Think of child prostitution, pornography or trafficking, and a few countries in Asia or Eastern Europe probably spring to mind. But is it becoming an issue in the Pacific? Recent research coordinated by a team of UN agencies in the Pacific shows it is – and needs to be addressed.

While we in the Pacific are beginning to recognise the extent of child sexual abuse, incest, rape and family violence in our communities, largely through the fact that police and media reports are becoming commonplace, little is known about the commercial side of sexual exploitation.

Recent Pacific Regional Chiefs of Police Conferences have noted increases in transnational and organised crime, people smuggling and sex crimes, however, reliable statistics are few and far between.

So, in early 2004, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and ECPAT International (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes) began conducting, at the request of Pacific Island governments, an initial round of situation analyses looking at the commercial sexual exploitation of children and child sexual abuse – a first of its kind for the Pacific.

As part of the region wide study, the Regional Rights Resource Team (RRRT), a human rights project of UNDP, joined forces with UNICEF in the second half of 2004 to research the extent of the problem in Kiribati, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. (UNESCAP is coordinating studies in PNG and Fiji, and ECPAT in the Cook Islands and Samoa.) Teaming up with local organisations in each country – Wan Smolbag in Vanuatu, the Christian Care Centre in Solomon Islands, Aia Maea Ainen Kiribati (AMAK) and the Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific Kiribati (FSPK) in Kiribati – the studies ran from August to November, 2004. 

“For RRRT, as a rights-based organisation, the issues of child sexual abuse and the commercial sexual exploitation of children and young people are of real concern,” RRRT Project Manager Sandra Bernklau says.

“They directly violate key fundamental human rights and commitments made by all the countries that participated in the study when they signed up to such international human rights conventions as CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) and CRC (the Convention on the Rights of the Child).”

Surveys and in-depth interviews conducted by local researchers in these three countries found evidence of children and young adults being sexually exploited for commercial purposes, sex tourism, child pornography and underage marriage.
In Kiribati, young women (known locally as te korekorea) are involved in commercial sex; a market fuelled mainly by the crews of foreign fishing vessels berthed at Betio wharf. In (Port Vila) Vanuatu, children and young women exchange sex in return for food or favour (and sometimes even school fees). In the Solomon Islands, young women fall prey to loggers, miners and local transport workers, while the practice of arranging marriages for underage children, accompanied with the traditional “bride price”, persists in some areas.

The research found the social impacts of rapid population growth, the transition from subsistence to a monetised economy, urbanisation and increasing poverty contributed to the sexual abuse and commercial sexual exploitation of children. It also found some cultural traditions and practices aggravated the problem.

The problem is linked to a number of factors. A massive, and ever increasing youth population, crowded housing conditions, lack of employment and educational opportunities has forced many children to drop out of school early – leaving them without skills, opportunities or income, but plenty of time. These conditions have left many children vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation, either for cash, transport, food or other material goods.

The study found changing family structures (due to urbanisation and population growth) and poor supervision of children to be major factors contributing to individual risk. Many commercially sexually exploited children were reported to be living without a responsible, caring guardian. This could be because the parents had to move for reasons of employment, because of broken families, or because the child had to live in a different area to attend school.

The study also revealed that some cultural practices may contribute to the problem, with kastom focusing more on protecting the family or community from shame, rather than punishing or dealing with the perpetrators and addressing the needs and rights of the victims. As a consequence, infringements of basic human rights are sometimes ignored by communities, or resolved through traditional forms of compensation such as payments or gifts to the victim’s family.

The research has stirred up quite a storm. In Korea, the findings of the study were front page news due to the alleged involvement of Korean sailors in the trade in Kiribati. 

Although 12 Pacific Island countries resolved to combat the problem at the Pacific Regional Workshop on Combating Poverty and Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children and Youth in September 2003, and proposed a range of activities addressing the issues of prevention, protection and rehabilitation – so far the focus of has been on violence, abuse and prostitution. A number of regional and international organisations and donors, governments and civil society organisations support or run programmes focusing on child abuse, sexual and gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health, youth and sex worker-related issues – but none specifically target the issue of commercial sexual exploitation.

In response to each country’s particular needs, the UN is in the early phases of planning joint initiatives with Pacific Island governments and civil society organisations to help address this growing problem in Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Kiribati as follow up to the research.

UNICEF Pacific Representative Gillian Mellsop explains, “UNICEF adopts a ‘Protective Environment’ strategy which focuses on providing protection for children in all elements of the children’s environment. For example, in the home, the community, at schools as well as through national legislative and monitoring systems. The protective environment strategy is a long-term approach to preventing abuse and exploitation for all children as well as addressing the rehabilitation and recovery of those who have been abused.”

Activities could involve advocating for and providing technical assistance to countries to review and amend legislation as well as expedite the enactment of more appropriate, effective legislation protecting women and children; training teachers, police, social workers, health workers and other support personnel to identify cases of sexual abuse and exploitation and to provide the necessary support and services; supporting awareness raising initiatives on human rights, and in particular, children’s rights; and, importantly, addressing the underlying causes of the commercial sexual exploitation of children and child sexual abuse, which includes ensuring all Pacific Islanders have access to education and employment opportunities.

Hannah Harborow is the Communications Coordinator at the Regional Rights Resource Team (RRRT).



 Email this article

For every child
Health, Education, Equality, Protection