Protecting Children

Jasmine Huggins | August 10, 2013

Caminante staffer Yocasta Veras being met by a group of children in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic. Photo: Luciano Cadoni/CWS

Caminante staffer Yocasta Veras being met by a group of children in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic. Photo: Luciano Cadoni/CWS

The world’s attention in recent weeks has been focused on the royal baby – Prince George of Cambridge. While the media frenzy of the prince’s birth has died down a bit, the attention paid to the young prince has been nothing if not outsized.

Much less attention has been paid to “protection” legislation being considered by the British government. It would request that internet giants like Google increase web-based tracking measures leading to greater protection of the thousands of children globally who are victims of sex trafficking, child prostitution and child pornography. All of which are supported by vast networks of criminals who operate on the internet.

The measures seek to force such internet service providers to do more with monitoring, and investigating those involved in what is, sadly, an all-too lucrative trade. Heading the effort (and not just in his own country) is British Prime Minister David Cameron. He is the first leader of the industrialized world to make this a priority. Only political will – and the resources granted by the world’s richest countries – will now determine what happens next.

Not surprisingly, Cameron’s efforts have not garnered much media attention. That is unfortunate, as I know from a recent visit to the Dominican Republic.

There I visited the office of Caminante, a long-time CWS partner. Caminante supports children and youth who, in order to survive, sell sex to tourists. The group’s office is located directly on the beach of Boca Chica, in the country’s sunlit, sea-washed, white sanded and entirely enchanting eastern coast. Boca Chica fits, as much as can be imagined, all the images of a hot, sultry Caribbean tropical paradise. Everything is sold here; rum, beer, bathing suits, sunscreen, braiding and massage services, jewelry, local food. And, sex with children.

Founded on a vision that all children, irrespective of their color, race, ethnic background, religion or class are deserving of respect, Caminante’s work is rooted in the broadest possible definition of protection and security. Their programs include sex education, counseling, psychological support, legal assistance, general and vocational training, support in finding employment, life skills training and mentoring.

The group assists several hundred children and youth a year, some as young as 11 years old.  Caminante cooperates with the police, other child protection groups, national alliances and government bodies. In addition to providing services, the group assists youth organize, speak out, do research and work on national child protection coalitions.  They do all this with limited financial resources and seemingly bottomless reserves of energy.

I went for a walk into the Boca Chica’s main street with Denisse Pichardo – Caminante’s inspired leader – and others of her trusted staff one weekday afternoon. The children came up to us, excited, holding the staffers’ hands, asking questions, inquiring about the classes, seeking our company. Many of these youth already support family and their own children through sex work. But Caminante’s programs have offered horizons they could not dream of before.

Even if operating with a highly trained and dedicated staff, Caminante’s leadership admits the group is unable to fully assist the vast number of new children, who, every year, come to the beach to provide sexual services to strangers.

The Dominican government is now striving to address the problem by increasing resources for prosecution. Specialized police units and committees now exist, but their resources are also too meager and their judiciary too ill-equipped to address its scale and magnitude. Prevention gets less governmental attention, as future tourists must not be dissuaded from visiting places like Boca Chica. The tourist industry is crucial to the Dominican economy. In 2012, tourism accounted for $4.5 billion – or nearly 8 percent of the nation’s $59 billion economy.

And yet despite tens of thousands of tourists, hundreds of whom might be involved in sex tourism – there was only one (one!) conviction of a sex child trafficking offender in 2012.

International demand for sex with children created the problem in Boca Chica, as elsewhere. Easy, unregulated, internet access has as much fuelled this demand as governmental inertia. Although more investigations and policing now takes place, it is nowhere near enough.

Prime Minister Cameron says protection and security for the world’s children requires far greater inter-governmental cooperation, resources, and, importantly, cooperation from the private sector.

Will it happen?

Imagine a global media as outraged about child prostitution as it is enamored of a royal child. Imagine a situation where there were not just one, but several hundred thousand children, perceived to be regal enough to be worthy of international protection measures.   Imagine political will and resources dedicated to that task.

Perhaps Cameron’s rallying call will start the process. Until then, though, the courageous staffers of Caminante will continue their much-needed work.

Jasmine Huggins is a Senior Advocacy Officer with CWS.