Commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) is treated as a criminal practice that involves violations of children’s rights through abuse and exploitation (ECPAT, 2013). Examples include: (i) Child sex trafficking and/or prostitution for sexual purposes, (ii) Child sexual abuse materials (CSAM)/pornography for sexual content and commercial purposes, and (iii) Child sex tourism for sexual exploitation.
The Goa Children’s Act (2003) is the only law that provides a legal definition of commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) in India:
“Commercial sexual exploitation of children means all forms of sexual exploitation of a child including visual depiction of a child engaged in explicit sexual conduct, real or stimulated, or the lewd exhibition of the genitals intended for sexual gratification of the user, done with a commercial purpose, whether for money or kind. It includes implying, allowing, using, inducing or coercing any child to engage in sexual conduct, it also includes the use of the child in assisting with other persons to engage in explicit sex” (The Goa Children’s Act, 2003; Rules, 2004, pp. 557).
It is difficult to find accurate data on trafficking cases due to illegal practices. Crimes are underreported and victims face many barriers to self-identification. According to the 2021 Trafficking in Persons report, millions of people are exploited in commercial sexual activities domestically (i.e. within India) (Department of State, 2021). According to the latest data available from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), a total of 2,914 child trafficking cases were registered in 2019, which is slightly higher than the 2,834 cases registered in 2018 (NCRB, 2019).
As a form of the sex trade economy, CSEC is expanding in both public and private sectors (Parks et al., 2019). Overwhelmingly, minors under 18 years old are engaged in commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) through private networks, making it more difficult for social actors to identify and locate vulnerable children. Public network include red-light areas where sexual services are sold and easily accessible, including entertainment industries, bars, and brothels. Private networks include private residences, massage parlours, hotels, lodges, etc.
Access to children for various sexual services through the internet is rampant (Ferrao, 2020). The nature of child trafficking is changing due to the spike of online platforms, and there has been a significant rise in:
Child pornography (The Times of India, 2021; Hindustan Times, 2021).
Sex trafficking from neighbouring countries. Traffickers lured Bangladeshi girls using the latest TikTok application (Aljazeera, 2021).
Child sex exploitation in tourist hotspots through the internet (either websites or social media). This may lead to the promotion of child sex tourism and trafficking (Dudeja, 2021).
All these indicate that cross-border trafficking is progressing rapidly in recent years. Trafficking is not carried out exclusively within states, and in many cases occurs across borders. At the same time, with technology, the increase in online recruitment makes it more difficult to identify perpetrators due to anonymity (Ferrao, 2020), and child sex trafficking has become increasingly hidden.
Child trafficking for prostitution has been growing for many decades and continues to thrive. Minor girls are trafficked and forced into prostitution (News18, 2021, The Times of India 2021a). Some are kidnapped and forced into prostitution (The Times of India, 2021b), and some are lured for jobs and forced into prostitution (India Today, 2021).
Child trafficking has also worsened with the current Covid-19 pandemic. Loss of parental employment and closed schools put children at high risk of vulnerability to exploitation and child marriage (Lal, 2021; ITV, 2020).
Risk and Vulnerability
Entry to CSEC is highly influenced and associated with religious, cultural, social, and economic vulnerabilities. Extreme poverty and unemployment are the major factors that facilitate human trafficking as a form of CSEC (Joffres et al., 2008; Parks et al., 2019). The status of caste is inextricably linked to CSEC. The majority of CSEC survivors belong to lower castes and ethnic minorities, and typically lack education (Santhya et al., 2014; Dalla et al., 2020). Many low-income, lower caste families rely on income generated activities such as prostitution and CSEC (Dalla et al. 2020). Often victims do not recognise vulnerability because of cultural norms, and instead consider their profession as a survival.
CSEC is also related to existing religious practices. One of the most prevalent forms is the ‘Devadasi’ system. CSEC is also related to child marriage and child sex tourism.
Links Between the Devadasi System and CSEC
The Devadasi system is a practice where young girls are dedicated in the name of religious practices. Historically, dedicated females were honoured, and they performed as dancers and musicians in temples. The practice in contemporary times affects the lives of many minor girls, particularly from low-income and lower caste populations (Shingal, 2015; Wilson, 2020). Devadasi practices (i) often involve force or coercion, or manipulation from family, (ii) most Devadasi victims are illiterate, (iii) gifts or money go into the hands of their families, and (iv) currently, the practice is motivated by economic rather than religious reasons (Desai, 2008; Lee, 2011; Shingal, 2015). The Devadasi practice only occurs in a few states, however, the consequences of this harmful practice contribute to the national problem of child sexual exploitation (Wilson et al., 2018).
Entry points to CSEC from the Devadasi system include:
Poverty, absence of education, and unemployment opportunities which have forced many young girls into traditional prostitution under religious sanction (Lee, 2011).
Girls are initiated into prostitution and/or sexual activity immediately after the dedication ceremony (Wilson, 2020).
Many of these dedicated girls are trafficked both within communities and outside (UNDOC, 2020).
Many of them are sold off by their families either to traffickers or brothels and become victims of CSEC (ARZ, 2019a).
Links Between Child Marriage and CSEC
Although child marriage is outlawed, it is practised across South Asian countries, including India. Child marriage increases the risk and vulnerability to CSEC, and it is recognised as a form of CSEC itself (ECPAT, 2014; ECPAT, 2015). Characteristics of child marriage and CSEC include:
Commodification of child marriage (for example, the economic transaction takes place in the form of goods or payment in cash or in-kind in exchange for a dowry).
Absence of agency and power, wherein it complete control is taken over the child’s life.
Virgin girls are more vulnerable because of high demand.
Child or early marriage often leads to sexual abuse and exploitation, domestic violence, and commercial exploitation.
Links Between Child Sex Tourism and CSEC
Child sex tourism is rapidly increasing in popular tourist destinations, including Goa and Kerala. The emerging trends of child sex tourism occur in more hidden services (hotels, guesthouses, bars, etc.), which involve owners, agents, pimps, and customers (ECPAT, 2013, Biswas et al., 2015). Often, employers get involved in connecting the offender(s) and the child, initiating them into prostitution. The use of grooming techniques, a technique where the offender(s) tries to build a relationship for sexual purposes through the exchange of gifts or money, is common.
Children working on the street within tourist areas are highly vulnerable to CSEC. The absence of control is one reason why street children can be easily manipulated and targeted by criminals and sexual offender(s).
Children, mainly migrant children, are more susceptible to vulnerability and CSEC. According to Global Study On Sexual Exploitation Of Children In Travel And Tourism report (2016), (i) many children do not attend school, (ii) most are directly involved in tourism-related work, (iii) children contribute to family income, (iv) many migrant children are excluded, neglected, and stigmatised, (v) there is an absence of adult supervision, and (vi) children are easy prey for both domestic and international tourist(s) and paedophiles.
According to EQUATIONS (2003), other factors that contribute to vulnerability include: (i) children’s lack of care, love, and affection, (ii) most children feel comfortable and happy with the tourist(s), (iii) children felt that working with foreign tourist(s) is more profitable because they provide them with toys, foods, and clothes, (iv) street children prostitute themselves either for survival or economic pressure, (v) poverty increases the risk and vulnerability to CSEC, and (vi) boys are commonly preferred by tourist(s). Sexual exploitation of boys is neglected and often go unnoticed by society.
Impacts of Child Sexual Exploitation
Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is tremendously associated with physical and mental health consequences. The most common physical health effects are sexually transmitted infections (STIs), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), unsafe abortion, and a higher risk of unwanted pregnancies. The most common adverse mental effects are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression, lack of self-confidence, shame, suicidal ideation, and substance abuse. Behavioural outcomes include aggression, anti-social behaviour, lack of trust in adults, and violence (Rafferty, 2008; Rafferty, 2013; Santhya, 2014; Greenbaum, 2018; Ahluwalia, 2020).
A trauma-informed care approach should be utilised to prevent retraumatisation. This includes encouragement, transparency, and non-judgment (Greenbaum, 2018). Psychotherapeutic intervention may be directly or indirectly related to CSE/CSEC and have been effective in improving emotional regulation (Mukherjee, 2019).
Laws Related to CSEC
Some of the statutory laws related to trafficking for CSEC include the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act of 1956, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act of 2012, and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006. State level laws include the Goa Children’s Act of 2003, the Karnataka Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act of 1982, and the Andhra Pradesh Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act of 1988.
Despite established legislation, the sexual abuse and exploitation of children still exist in society. Some efforts to reduce the risks to child sexual exploitation include:
Strengthening existing laws
Providing education and skill-building/life skills programmes, particularly to lower castes and other vulnerable populations
Sensitising religious and traditional leaders about harmful practices such as the Devadasi system and child marriage
Ensuring safe migration and support services
Providing adequate rehabilitation and reintegration programmes for survivors
Strengthening families and communities
Enacting laws in various sectors (for example, massage parlours, bars/pubs etc.)
Empowering girls through education to prevent early marriage
Sensitising and training public health professionals (Rafferty, 2013; ECPAT, 2015; ARZ, 2019b; Wilson, 2020; Greenbaum, 2020).
CSEC in India, though a legal and human rights issue, must be understood within specific socio-economic and cultural contexts. The Devadasi practice, child marriage, and tourism are substantially connected to CSEC in India. Structural inequalities and unequal power structures within families and communities underpin the exploitation of children.
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