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Preventing the sale and exploitation of children in a rapidly changing world

Three papers on technology, sport, and migration shed light on latest report by UN Special Rapporteur

Umu Koroma (13), a former sex worker in Small Sefadu, Sierra Leone. 

(2 April 2020) States must step up their efforts to eradicate the sale and sexual exploitation of children to keep up with evolving risks. The UN Special Rapporteur stressed this message at the Human Rights Council earlier this month, where she released the final report of her six-year tenure. In the report, Ms Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, provides an analysis of key challenges, trends, and recommendations for the way forward.

“Child dignity cannot be an afterthought” - Maud de Boer-Buquicchio

The report was informed, amongst others, by an expert consultation held at UNICEF Office of Research—Innocenti in September 2019. To accompany the Special Rapporteur’s report, UNICEF Innocenti has prepared three reports summarising key discussion points around three important and growing contexts related to the sale and sexual exploitation of children: technology, sport, and migration.

Technology a new enabler of child exploitation

As access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) increases, so too do the risks posed to children. Popular ICTs, like mobile phones and the internet, can enable and facilitate sexual crimes against children, including the production and dissemination of child sexual abuse materials and the facilitation of child prostitution.

The scale of the problem is difficult to ascertain with precision. However, in 2018 alone, 18.4 million referrals of child sexual abuse material were made by US technology companies to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.

When addressing the issue, children’s own experiences and perspectives need to be considered. For the most part, the use of ICTs can generate positive benefits for children. Addressing the root causes of children’s vulnerability therefore requires a rights-based and holistic approach. Priorities include more and better evidence on the role of ICTs in facilitating or enabling the sale and sexual exploitation of children; clear terminology; new and improved legislation to help end the sale and sexual exploitation of children; and a multi-sectoral collaborative response.

The dark side of sport – how children are exposed to violence and abuse

Sport has a powerful effect on children’s well-being and can promote greater physical health, emotional and mental balance, and help children develop important skills. But sport can also expose children to grievous harm and violence.

At the extreme end is the sale of athletes, especially in major sports like football. Child athletes can easily fall victim to human trafficking, sometimes for the purposes of economic or sexual exploitation.

Everyday participation in sport can also expose children to violence and harm. Instructors and coaches typically enjoy substantial impunity due to their authoritative role and the great pressure exerted on children to perform, often with the support of parents who are unaware of the exposure to harm.

The interconnectedness of sport and the sale and sexual exploitation of children is a relatively unexplored issue that deeply affects their life experiences. While Conventions and Optional Protocols provide guidance, not enough research is available to inform actions, and laws are not fully equipped to regulate what is often a lucrative business.

The vulnerability of children on the move

36.1 million children were international migrants in 2018 alone, often forced to move for a range of reasons, with or without families. Children who are migrating, especially if unaccompanied, face increased risk of being subjected to violence, including sexual violence, exploitation, and human trafficking. Their vulnerability is exacerbated by limited access to safe migration pathways, services, and justice. When they reach a destination country, they may encounter other difficulties, such as discrimination and limited access to basic services, making them extremely vulnerable to sale and sexual exploitation.

Migrant children face harsh realities that are characterized by multiple intersecting and overlapping issues. Even though they may show resilience and agency in dealing with difficult circumstances, the emotional, mental, and physical toll of uncertain and often arduous journeys may undermine their ability to protect themselves, making them even more vulnerable to violence, abuse, and exploitation.

Children left behind when families, especially one or both parents, migrate also face additional (and often hidden) vulnerabilities, and need to be included in research, policies and actions.

While various Conventions, Protocols, and Compacts offer some protection to migrant children, more needs to be done, including: an integrated approach to complex vulnerabilities; improved access to information and education for children; risk mitigation through awareness campaigns and prevention mechanisms; adequate access to resources; and expanding national child protection measures to include children on the move and those left behind in the context of migration and displacement.

READ the final Report of the Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children

“We have come a long way to raise a better awareness of this phenomena, thanks to courageous children who, against all odds, stand up to speak and break the culture of silence nurtured by social tolerance, shame and stigma. Significant gains have also been achieved thanks to the dedication of first-line child protection officers, service providers, border police and law enforcement,” de Boer-Buquicchio said in a press statement following the release of her report.

Related Articles

UN Special Rapporteur holds expert consultation on prevention of the sale & sexual exploitation of children
Article Article

UN Special Rapporteur holds expert consultation on prevention of the sale & sexual exploitation of children

A young boy watches content on his smart mobile phone in Selce, Croatia. The consultation will discuss recent developments, including the expansion of the Internet and social media, that have had a large impact on the sale and sexual exploitation of children.(24 September 2019) Although significant efforts have been made to address the scourge of the sale and sexual exploitation of children, numerous gaps remain. The nature of the issue has changed considerably over recent decades with far-reaching impact on children, including the expansion of Internet, migration flows, natural disasters, conflicts, climate-related upheavals and the ever-evolving and increasing use of assisted reproductive technologies, such as surrogacy. Against this backdrop, the UN Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, including child prostitution, child pornography and other child sexual abuse material, Ms Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, in partnership with the UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti, will hold a two-day expert meeting in Florence. The aim of the meeting is to reflect on the current state of play of this problem, its root causes and new manifestations, as well as the relevance and the impact of interventions to eliminate the sale and sexual exploitation of children. The meeting will take place on 24th and 25th September 2019, at UNICEF Innocenti and will gather over 30 experts in child rights. This expert meeting is part of a series of consultations, including with Member States and a call for input seeking information from all interested stakeholders to inform the Special Rapporteur’s final report to the Human Rights Council in March 2020. New UN Peacekeeping Base Offers Yei Community Path to Peace and Prosperity, Yei, South Sudan. Migration flows, natural disasters, conflicts, and climate-related upheavals, among other developments, have changed the nature of the scourge of the sale and sexual exploitation of children considerably.The two-day consultation will offer a platform for debate and open dialogue to exchange experiences, challenges, good practices, lessons learned, and recommendations as to what are the priorities and neglected issues requiring urgent attention. Sessions will explore:Awareness and attitudes underpinning the sale and sexual exploitation of children States’ jurisdiction and institutional accountabilityRoot causes and demand for the sexual exploitation of children and children’s vulnerability to sale and sexual exploitation Legal frameworks to protect children from sale and sexual exploitation Strengthening child protection systemsSpecial focuses on sport, technology, and migration and forced labour.Evidence on effective prevention and response strategies The way forwardUNICEF Innocenti will host the meeting and contribute expertise on child rights and protection across all the sessions. Priscilla Idele, UNICEF Innocenti’s Director a.i., will open the meeting. Chief of Research on Child Rights and Child Protection, Ramya Subrahmanian, will chair the opening session, as well as a session on evidence of effective prevention and response strategies. Our Digital Research Specialist, Daniel Kardefelt-Winther, will chair a session with a special focus on technology.Follow UNICEF Innocenti and @UN_SPExperts on Twitter, as well as the hashtags #StandUp4HumanRights and #EndChildAbuse for updates from the consultation.  

Research Projects

Global Kids Online
Research Project Research Project

Global Kids Online

The Global Kids Online project and network was established in 2015 to support evidence generation on children’s online experiences at the national level. Recognizing the lack of high-quality evidence in this field, particularly in the Global South, the Global Kids Online project provides a toolkit of standardized methodologies that enable researchers to gather robust data on children’s digital experiences. The project is conducted in partnership with the London School of Economics and Political Science and the EU Kids Online network, as well as many researchers and experts from different parts of the world.The data gathered by the Global Kids Online network allows us to compare our findings cross-nationally and  understand the differences and similarities in children’s internet use across a range of country and regional contexts. As of 2019, UNICEF country offices and academic partners have collected data from nearly 25,000 children and 12,000 parents in 18 countries across four continents, using the Global Kids Online methodology. The network continues to grow each year and additional national projects are ongoing in 2020.The Global Kids Online research toolkit is freely available on the Global Kids Online website.


Handbook for the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography
Publication Publication

Handbook for the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography

The Handbook aims to promote understanding and effective implementation of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. The publication describes the genesis, scope and content of the Protocol, and provides examples of measures taken by States Parties to fulfil their obligations under this instrument. This essential guide is addressed principally to public officials, UN organizations, child rights advocates and others who work with and for children, and whose duties and activities can enhance the protection of children from exploitation, whether on the national or local level.


Participants list
Looking back, looking forward: Consultation on the Mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children
Looking back, looking forward: Consultation on the Mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children
Reports and studies
The Sale and Sexual Exploitation of Children in the Context of Digital Technology
The Sale and Sexual Exploitation of Children in the Context of Migration
The Sale and Sexual Exploitation of Children in the Context of Sport