As we’ve been discussing the past couple of weeks, child sex trafficking is on the slate of concerns that people call “women’s issues” primarily because women and girls are disproportionately the victims, while traffickers and buyers tend to be men. For many practitioners in the field, patriarchy as an underlying cause is a given. However, the way patriarchy is often defined tends to be limited, so we argue for a more expansive view, which accounts for the fact that boys and men can also be victims and women can also be traffickers. Whether or not you buy into the patriarchy lens per se, though, it is our belief that uplifting women and girls and empowering them successfully requires more than a focus on women and girls. We need to reach boys and men too–to address the fact that they can be both victims and perpetrators of sexual violence.
A child modeling agent in Thailand was recently arrested, having been accused of abusing at least 40 Thai minors and thousands of other children in other countries. He had over 500,000 images, and all of his victims were boys between the ages of 6 and 15. There is clearly a market for that. This dataset on child trafficking victims in Asia (which includes labor trafficking) shows an interesting age/gender dynamic: in the 9-14 age range, boys are the majority of victims before it flips for the 15-20 age range, where girls become the majority of victims.
It’s not only in the anti-trafficking world that we’re seeing more and more accounts of male victims of sexual exploitation. More and more men have been coming forward and sharing that they’ve been victims of sexual abuse when they were children. Because the barriers for boys to come forward as victims–the stigma and shame, the difficulty identifying as victims, the fear of not being believed–are so high, we’re collectively beginning to realize this could be a much bigger problem than previously realized.
How We’re Taking a More Expansive Approach
Because we are committed to seeing an end to child trafficking, we believe it’s important to protect all children from sexual abuse and exploitation. We see how it disproportionately affects girls, but we believe in addressing the potential for boy victims too. For our scholarship program, about 70% of our scholarship students are girls, and we do accept boys too. One in 8 of our students have already been sexually abused in the past.
Protection & Prevention
As part of our awareness raising, we have a “3-3-5” program which uses play-based techniques to teach kids about child abuse, how to recognize it, how to be clear about what kinds of touches are appropriate, and how to respond if they or their friends experience abuse. All of our students attend these, often multiple times. We present this program in local schools in the region as well.
We have also held workshops on healthy relationships, giving a safe space to discuss what loving, respectful relationships can look like. Domestic violence is prevalent where we work, and we have held a session on how damaging this kind of violence is–some women who attended admitted that it never occurred to them to question violence in the home before. They had not realized that it had a negative impact on the family or that it was against the law.
While empowering women and girls to stay in school, reach higher education, take an equal part in the work force and in leadership positions are all essential ingredients to helping end violence against women and girls, we believe that this is only part of the equation. Ending abuse and exploitation also involves changing the norms, attitudes, and beliefs–that both women and men hold–about the legitimacy or excusability of this kind of violence. As we noted in last week’s post, evidence shows that locally based community programs that change attitudes, norms, and behaviors are an effective way to reduce sexual violence.
To be most effective, we believe our programs need to reach beyond a narrow definition of who’s most impacted to see this as a widespread cultural phenomenon that needs collective action in order to change.