By Aingkaran Kugathasan
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 02/20/2012
With the evolution of travel and communication, tourists now have access to a plethora of destinations across the globe. While the tourism industry has brought numerous benefits, it has also given rise to the dark reality of child sex tourism (CST). Although South East Asia is often associated with this issue, several other regions have been significantly affected as well. CST involves the sexual exploitation of children by individuals who have traveled from other locations, usually other countries. The United Nations defines CST as “tourism organized with the primary purpose of facilitating the effecting of a commercial-sexual relationship with a child.” This violation of children’s rights is a growing concern, particularly in countries experiencing a surge in tourism. Sri Lanka, with its rich cultural heritage and natural beauty, is not immune to this issue.
The Impact of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children
The commercial sexual exploitation of children is a grave violation of their rights, tantamount to contemporary slavery. It entails the sexual abuse of a child in exchange for cash or other forms of remuneration. Children involved in the sex trade are treated as mere objects, subjected to coercion and violence. The growth of tourism often parallels the expansion of child exploitation, as poor planning and the displacement of communities contribute to the vulnerability of children. Other factors, such as the absence of traditional values, insufficient law enforcement, and an increased demand for sex services, further exacerbate the issue.
CST in Sri Lanka primarily affects boys, unlike in other South Asian countries where girls are more vulnerable. Although the exact number of victims and offenders remains uncertain, it is estimated that over half of the 30,000 child sex workers in Sri Lanka are boys. Non-profit organizations, reputable sources, and children’s rights activists state that up to 30,000 boys are implicated in the sex trade, often referred to as “beach boys” due to their exploitation in coastal areas. This problem extends beyond local demand, as young boys are offered to tourists from Europe, America, and Asia, with some even included in vacation packages.
A Grave Challenge
Sri Lanka, boasting the highest literacy rate in Asia, still grapples with the plight of children. Extreme poverty and the lasting effects of a civil war have made children easy targets for sexual predators and traffickers. Shockingly, boys and girls as young as three years old have fallen victim to this horrific trade. The number of reported cases of child abuse continues to rise, with children’s rights activists emphasizing that countless incidents go unreported. The prevalence of child prostitution and the alarming number of child prostitutes in Sri Lanka have earned the country a notorious reputation as a “paedophile’s pleasure center.”
The tourism industry, touted as one of Sri Lanka’s most lucrative sectors generating an estimated US$300 million per year, has been blamed for the proliferation of boy sex workers, particularly in beach areas. The statistics speak volumes: by 2004, Sri Lanka had about 8,000 people living with HIV, with 800 of them being children. Child sex workers face a high risk of contracting HIV, making their identification and protection even more challenging.
Multiple factors have contributed to turning Sri Lanka into a cesspool of sexual exploitation. The existence of organized crime rings and the legal status of prostitution have exacerbated the problem. Disturbingly, Sri Lanka has become a primary source of child pornography for the United States and Europe. Even the devastating 2004 tsunami inadvertently aided the child sex trade. Desperate families, mired in poverty, often willingly or unknowingly sell their children, while the demand for child exploitation remains insatiable.
Efforts Towards Protection
To combat child abuse and child prostitution, Sri Lanka requires a comprehensive approach that includes legislative, administrative, and social measures. Several international instruments and domestic laws have been enacted to safeguard children’s rights. Sri Lanka is a signatory to these international conventions, which obligate the country to take decisive action.
The National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), established under the NCPA Act, plays a crucial role in formulating policies, coordinating actions, and monitoring the prevention of child abuse. The NCPA collaborates with relevant stakeholders, including the tourist industry, to prevent child abuse related to commercial sex networks. However, the effectiveness of these instruments and mechanisms is questionable, as the implementation and enforcement of laws remain a challenge. Corruption and the deep involvement of law enforcement officers in the sex trade hinder the prosecution of offenders. The government’s reluctance to address the issue directly can be attributed to the significant income generated by the tourism industry.
The Way Forward
Sri Lanka must take immediate and robust action to tackle child abuse and exploitation. Simply having legislation in place is not enough; effective enforcement and addressing the root causes, such as poverty and vulnerability, are crucial. The government needs to monitor law enforcement authorities more closely to ensure that they actively combat child exploitation and reduce CST. A holistic approach is essential, focusing on both political and legal aspects, as well as providing essential infrastructure and social support.
It is imperative that all stakeholders work together to protect the rights of children in Sri Lanka. Civil society, the tourism industry, and international organizations must collaborate to create awareness, enforce the law, and provide support to victims. By doing so, Sri Lanka can aspire to become a safe haven for children, where their rights are respected and protected.
Aingkaran Kugathasan is an Asia Leaders Fellow in the International Law and Human Rights Masters Programme at the University for Peace of Costa Rica.