The Conference “Prevention and Fight against Violence and Sexual Exploitation of Children” was held in Sofia. The event was organized jointly by the Association “Ignored Children”, ECPAT international and the National Network for Children. The conference was attended by 45 experts from Bulgaria and another 12 from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Macedonia, Turkey, Romania and Serbia.
ECPAT is a global network of civil society organizations working against all forms of sexual exploitation of children, with 104 non-governmental organizations from 93 countries. The organization is dealing with all forms of sexual exploitation of children – criminal acts in tourism, prostitution, online exploitation, marriages with children, children trafficking.
The network has a strategic framework of work centered around the victim and its voice, underlined Marie – Laure Lemineur – Executive Director of the organization. ECPAT is advocating children rights among the state institutions. An important part of its work is collecting evidences of sexual exploitation crimes with purpose to be used in advocacy campaigns.
The idea of the meeting is to bring together experts and members from the region of Southeastern Europe and the Balkans, said Stana Bukovska, Regional Coordinator of the Eastern and Central Europe Organization. The conference is important because it presents the situation in Bulgaria and the region, the diagnosis, the problems and how, as representatives of different institutions, businesses, organizations, NGOs, service providers, from different points of view, we could together improve the situation of children, how we can help the victims.
According to Sanya Saranovic, UNICEF Deputy National Representative, one of the leading partners of ECPAT, the current UNICEF program in Bulgaria has a very strong component in child abuse prevention, including sexual exploitation.
“We are very proud of the “Zone Protection” centers in some Bulgarian cities – this is a way of helping the society and the institutions to understand the nature of the problem in order to create a safe environment for children without violence,” said Mrs. Saranovic.
Marie – Laure Lemineur – Deputy CEO of ECPAT, pointed out that the organization has many challenges and presented various examples and statistics (PPTх, 1 MB) that illustrate the main issues. Priority of the ECPAT within the Advocacy Strategy is to continue to gather more information and seek better access to images in order to provide more evidences, said Marie-Laure Lemineur.
According to her, ECPAT has demanded from Interpol access to images of child abuse on which to work to identify perpetrators. “We’ve reviewed more than 1 million images, and we find that the degree of involvement in boys is heavier, as is the case with the youngest victims. The younger the victims are, the stronger the damage is – this can be used in decision-making in police and social services on how to prioritize these images. Most victims are under the age of 12, she said.
Another important for the region statistic is the photos of the so-called children models. Often police checks show that the agencies that offer them have illegal content. This requires a discussion of the topic.
Another example of ECPAT’s work is the analysis of hotlines where Internet users can report content. There are people at the country level who can look at relevant images and decide whether they are legal and inform the police. “We are working on the assumption that the victims are getting younger, but we can not prove it. Between 2 and 7 percent of the illegal images in the Internet are very young children”, said Marie-Laure Lemineur.
Another ECPAT project is the additional OPSC Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography – a working group has been set up and when a country draws up an official report, ECPAT is making a “shadow report”. Guidance has been developed on how to report under this Optional Protocol because it is important how information is submitted to the UN Children’s Rights Committee.
ECPAT also works with ITU, an international telecommunication union, in which the organization examines how children are influenced by the technology development.
There are also trainings of judges and prosecutors dealing with cases of violence, how to work with electronic evidence and data collection.
The next year marks the 30th anniversary since the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child – this will be an occasion to organize events, to raise awareness in different parts of society, said Marie-Laure Lemineur. A global thematic report on child abuse will be drafted and ECPAT will present a report outlining the main challenges in combating child violence.
Maya Rusakova, a representative of ECPAT for Eastern Europe, stressed that ECPAT is a real network of organizations that goes from below, members of which are also victims of crime. According to her it is particularly important to collect best practices at the time of local meetings.
The link between migration and sexual exploitation is strong, and this has already been proven, so many projects focus on this issue.
Not enough attention is paid to cases where children are not a direct victim of exploitation but are witnesses, for example, of exploitation of mothers. This is a gray area that is related to the prevention and analysis of the processes, said Mrs. Rusakova.
A special guest of the event was the chairman of the parliamentary group of GERB and chairman of the Committee on Internal Security and Public Order Tsvetan Tsvetanov.
The biggest danger for children is the Internet, and parents, state institutions and NGOs have to inform children about that, Tsvetan Tsvetanov said. He informed that the most common victims of violence and sexual exploitation are children from low social strata where there is degradation of family values. Children of families with a status over the average are also at risk. Overcoming the consequences of violence and sexual exploitation is extremely difficult, Tsvetan Tsvetanov said. “That is why with such information campaigns we have to reach both – the children and their parents. We need to show good practices and work on prevention, “said Tzvetanov.
According to him, the identification of victims is the key to success in combating this problem.
In his words, in recent years there is a new phenomenon – trafficking of babies and pregnant women who give birth to their children abroad.
“A large part of the children, victims of trafficking and violence, subsequently perceive themselves not as victims but as criminals. We have always strived to improve legislation and to increase sanctions against the abusers. ”
Tsvetanov also pointed out that a major challenge for state law authorities is the increased migration. “According to the UN High Commission, over 34 million children under the age of 20 have been trafficked.”
In his words, a dialogue with the most vulnerable groups is needed, but it is hampered because sometimes they perceive the authorities of the Ministry of Interior as a repressive apparatus and do not share their own problems.
Georgi Bogdanov, an Executive Director of the National Network for Children, addressed Tsvetan Tsvetanov, and stressed that one of the major aims for recently established national platform “Childhood without Violence”, which Network for Children coordinates, is to introduce the “Inspire” tool in Bulgaria and to work for Bulgaria to be included in the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children. “In this regard, we are looking for a political leader to engage with the topic and the Global Partnership. We hope to find a partner in the government”, Mr. Bogdanov said.
Tsvetan Tsvetanov answered that child abuse is an important topic for society, and he will commit to providing government support for the Global Partnership. The benefit of this initiative is also the attraction of public leaders and MEPs, Tsvetanov stressed.
Mihail Okoliyski, a representative of the World Health Organization for Bulgaria, presented the international tool „Inspire“ (PPTx, 5 MB). The project is supported by the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the World Bank and other organizations and institutions. Its main message is that violence against children can be prevented and the “Inspire” tool presents 7 strategies to help countries reduce violence against children which are practical examples of implementing various measures and strategies.
A workgroup with the participation of NNC has prepared “Inspire” handbook translation which will be widely promoted in Bulgaria. A roadmap will also be developed to identify future financing and lobbying needs, Mr. Okolyyski said.
The information is particularly important, evidences are needed to develop policies for prevention and protection, Okolyyski said.
The data show that one in four children was subjected to physical violence, 1 out of 5 girls were subjected to sexual violence at least once. The impact on children’s health can be devastating – violence can have physical and mental consequences.
In his words, the problem in the Balkan countries is rooted in rapid social changes, economic and gender inequalities, poverty.
Georgi Apostolov from Safenet Center presented the national platform Childhood Without Violence. The union is formed by 19 civil organizations and is coordinated by the National Network for Children.
“Next year we mark the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It has proved its worth. Now the world seems to go back”, said Mr. Apostolov. According to him there is infiltration of ideologies that violate human rights. “This has an impact on public discourse – we had problems with the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. There are politicians who speak the language of hatred. Hate is the first step towards endangering and destroying democratic values. In this environment children are in ever greater danger. That’s why we created the platform against violence. Every child must grow without violence, but this can be done only with the active work of civil society. Campaigns, strong messages are needed. We need to be on the street, we need more visible regional events. We should not be locked up in our professional community and we should not act as firefighters, but as leaders, for now we are losing the battle. We must be united in the sharing of resources and good practices”, said Mr. Apostolov.