Children Exploited in Travel and Tourism
Mao*, 15, who lives in Cambodia, has been driven by a painful memory since she was young. “My family is extremely poor,” Mao explains. Her mother sells fruit and flowers, and her father is an assistant chef. “Both of them earn a small amount of money and it is just enough for food and other expenses.”
Mao dropped out of school in Grade 2 due to her family’s poverty. Moreover, family debt pressured her into the sex trade to earn money to pay for what her family owed.
“One day, I went to visit a friend and stayed overnight in her house,” Mao says. “My friend’s mother asked women and girls staying in her house if anybody wanted to sell Pomme (a Cambodian reference to virginity).” Hearing this offer, Mao was driven to consider it since she desperately needed money to help her mother pay their debt. After thinking about it for a while, she answered, “Yes, I will.”
At dawn the next day, two women waited for Mao in front of a pagoda. They instructed Mao to mask her face so no one would recognize her. Ashamed, she did as they told her. They travelled to a hotel where her virginity was sold to a man for $200 USD. Mao immediately sent $150 USD to her mother to pay the debt, but did not let her mother know where the money had come from.
“I should not have been so naive and ignorant as to trade myself,” Mao says. But knowing her family’s ongoing financial difficulty and her parents’ inability to repay their debts, she saw few options, and she turned to the sex trade for money.
Mao’s final client happened to be a foreigner, a man who was being investigated and tracked by Cambodian authorities. This investigation led to Mao’s rescue. She was sent to World Vision’s Trauma Recovery Centre for medical care to treat her injuries and for psychosocial support. Mao spent several months in the centre. She received counselling and training in topics such as health issues, life skills, and language study. She learned that she loves to weave, and she now weaves the traditional Cambodian Krama and is able to earn and save some money to send to her family.
Mao spent much of her childhood running from regrets and hiding her shame. But she has decided she won’t allow her past to control her future. Thinking about two friends who were traded to a foreigner by their parents, Mao pleads to all parents: “Please do not trade your children.” She hopes other girls will not fall into the trap of sexual exploitation due to poverty. “I will share my difficult experience … and I will convince them not to trade themselves because if they fall into sexual slavery, they will be hurt and regretful for life.”
Mao dreams of becoming a teacher. “I want to be a Khmer teacher,” she says, “so I can read and teach other people to read.”
*Name has been changed to protect her identity.
Joys and Sorrows of Travel and Tourism
You’re sipping a cocktail in a hotel bar in Acapulco at midnight. You’ve left the Canadian winter far behind. Life couldn’t be better. A Mexican boy, about 10, enters the bar with a basket of roses for sale. You gently shake your head and he moves off to show his flowers to other tourists. You notice the hotel staff seem to know him. Some women ask the price of his roses in broken Spanish. The women and the boy are smiling—it looks like a happy scene. But questions creep into your mind. Why is this boy selling flowers so late at night? Who looks out for him when he’s surrounded by strangers? Should the hotel allow this? Is there something you should do?
Tourism offers amazing experiences of play, learning and relaxation. But the tourism industry also involves a sinister reality—the sexual exploitation of children.
For many developing countries, tourism is an important way to grow the economy and provide jobs for adults and children. Some jobs that children do are relatively safe, such as selling souvenirs on the streets or working in tourist attractions or hotels, and children are able to continue going to school while working. But other work falls into the realm of “3D” jobs: dirty, dangerous, and degrading. These jobs take children out of school and make them vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation. Even “safe” jobs like selling souvenirs and legitimate services to travelers can bring children into risky contact with people who may use them sexually.
Sexual exploitation has long-lasting and devastating consequences for children. It harms their bodies, minds, and spirits, causing pain, fear and despair. Children can end up with unwanted pregnancies, HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases, or become addicted to drugs. They are often rejected by their families or stigmatized in their communities.
To stop the sexual exploitation of children through travel and tourism, we need to understand who does it, how, and why.
Naming what words cannot describe
We do not use the term “child sex tourism” because we believe it does not convey strongly enough the damage being done to children, and the illegal, abusive actions of the perpetrators. Instead, we will say child sexual exploitation in travel and tourism (CSETT).
Some important definitions:
- Child means anyone under 18 years old
- Sexual exploitation means that the perpetrator offers something to the child, or to someone with influence or control over the child, in exchange for sexual contact with the child. This might be money, clothing, food, alcohol, cigarettes, accommodation, a favour, or even “affection.”
- CSETT involves treating children like sexual or commercial objects. It is a form of violence against children, and a violation of their rights.
No adult can justify taking these actions by arguing that the child consented—no matter what the child said or did.
Who commits this crime?
The perpetrators are people who travel from home and then have sexual contact with a child in their travel destination.
Media stories might suggest these people are mostly middle-aged or older men—pedophiles going from a rich country to a poorer one, with a plan to sexually abuse children. These cases do exist, and much more must be done about them. However, travelling sex offenders fit other profiles too
- People travelling for business or pleasure (that’s why the term we use, CSETT, includes travel and tourism
- Younger tourists
- Women or men
- Those who are wealthy and those who are not
- People living and working or volunteering in a foreign country—such as teachers, business people, or staff of charities—who use their position to meet and exploit children.
Surprisingly, the majority of perpetrators are not pedophiles, but “situational offenders.” This means that they are presented with a situation where they can have sexual contact with a child and they seize it. The anonymity of being a tourist or traveller often influences their decision, convincing them they will not get caught.
Where does this exploitation happen? 
No country or travel destination is immune to child sexual exploitation. But often these crimes tend to happen more in places where government systems to protect children are weaker, and where travellers can use their comparative wealth to exploit children. Examples of regions include South and Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Central and South America, and areas of Africa where tourism has grown.
Global numbers of victims and perpetrators are hard to generate. These activities are illegal, so they are often hidden or even run by organized criminals. However, some countries have supplied estimates: A 2006 study by UNICEF and the Kenyan government estimates that 10,000 to 15,000 girls living in Kenyan coastal areas of Malindi, Mombasa, Kalifi and Diani could be involved in the sex trade—up to 30% of all 12- to 18-year-olds in these areas. (This includes sexual exploitation by travellers and tourists). A further 2,000-3,000 girls are estimated to be involved in this activity year-round.
Why does child sexual exploitation happen through travel and tourism?
People’s harmful attitudes towards children are at the root of this crime. Travelling sex offenders view children as objects to fulfill their personal desires and preferences, without regard for the impact on the child. They may feel it is easier to abuse a child when they are away from home, more anonymous, or in a country with weaker laws.
Human traffickers and organized crime groups perpetuate the crime by catering to perpetrators and forcing children into dirty, dangerous and degrading work. Relatives or even parents may push children into sexual exploitation, often because of poverty. The crime is also facilitated by people who are not offenders but who tolerate the activity happening around them and do not report suspicious incidents.
In all these cases, adults fail to uphold children’s fundamental rights and they neglect their duty to protect children. The situation is made worse when countries lack strong criminal justice systems and social programs for protecting children, and do not enforce laws that keep children safe.
Misuse of communication technologies also contributes to child sexual exploitation. Travelling sex offenders use the Internet to share information about where and how to obtain sexual contact with children. The Internet, videos and mobile phone technologies help offenders meet children through chat and gaming rooms. Travelling perpetrators also use these technologies to create and share images of child sexual abuse.
What makes a child vulnerable to exploitation?
Factors that make boys and girls vulnerable include:
- Marginalized status—such as being a member of an ethnic minority, a displaced community, or another group on the margins of society
- Lack of family support, education, and opportunity
- Abuse at home
- Drug abuse
- A child’s desire for money or other “benefits”
- The presence of a major tourism hub close to a child’s home
- Lack of awareness and knowledge (amongst children, parents and communities) on how to protect children from sexual exploitation
- Knowledge is key to protection
There are many ways children can be protected, or helped to leave and heal from sexual exploitation. Everybody has a part to play in child-safe travel and tourism, and it often begins with knowledge:
Children, their families, and their communities need to know about the dangers of sexual exploitation through travel and tourism, and how to protect themselves and each other. People working in the tourism industry need to know where and how this crime happens, and they need to build skills to observe and report suspicious situations. These people include staff of airlines, travel companies, hotels, and entertainment venues, taxi drivers, tour guides and even government officials. All businesses—big or small—relating to tourism and travel must adhere to policies or codes that protect children.
Tourists and travellers must take responsibility and play their part in stopping child sexual exploitation. They need to know the consequences for children and perpetrators, what to look for, and how to report a suspected case.
More ways to stop sexual exploitation of children
- Help governments strengthen and enforce their systems for protecting children
- Help poverty-stricken families find safe ways of earning an income (e.g. provide job skills training)
- Help children access education and learn about their rights
- Create community reporting systems—such as hotlines or community watch groups—to identify suspected cases of abuse
- Provide drop-in centers, outreach programs, and live-in programs for survivors of sexual exploitation to help them recover and reintegrate into their communities
- Increase public awareness of the crime, and support a child-safe travel and tourism industry to raise awareness among travellers and travel service providers
- Governments need to arrest perpetrators, and collaborate and share information between countries to identify and prosecute travelling sex offenders
- Ensure police, lawyers, judges, and investigators have proper training
- Impose severe penalties on companies and individuals who break the law—for example, a hotel that does not report suspicious situations involving children and tourists.
Who is fighting child sexual exploitation in travel and tourism? What is World Vision doing?
The best approach to fighting CSETT is through developing child-safe travel and tourism. This means creating environments that protect children, and this calls for everyone to play their part.
It is encouraging to know that good work is happening around the world. Governments are creating stronger laws and plans, joining forces with other organizations, and involving the tourism sector. Businesses, UN agencies, and the International Labour Organization have joined the efforts. More than 40 countries now have laws allowing their citizens to be prosecuted for sexual abuse of children abroad.
World Vision is active in many countries, helping to prevent the sexual exploitation of children through travel and tourism and to restore hope and health to survivors. Just a few examples:
- In Southeast Asia, we are lead advocates, speaking out on this issue and partnering with governments, authorities and other organizations.
- In Cambodia, we helped the government to establish national and provincial police hotlines, assisting them to act on information about suspected cases of abuse.
- In countries as diverse as Cambodia, Thailand, Costa Rica, Mexico, Brazil, and the United States, we have spread public messages to deter potential travelling sex offenders, such as Abuse a child in this country, go to jail in yours. We have featured these messages on the Internet, television, airline videos and magazines, and billboards and posters in destination countries.
- We have worked with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to help identify offenders and support investigations and prosecutions.
- We will work with other agencies, tourism-related media, and businesses to promote child-safe tourism, make people aware of the risks facing children, and calling them to take responsibility for the impact of their travel. This is part of a three-year initiative in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.