The issue: Commercial sexual exploitation of children
Commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) continues to be a significant problem in Colombia. Between 2011 and 2013 Colombian Social Services removed 2,135 children from situations where they were being sold for sex - 45% were under 11 years old. Organisations working in this field have estimated that over 35,000 children are involved in CSEC in Colombia but large numbers of cases go unreported.
Bogotá has some of the highest levels of CSEC in the country, and Santa Fe and Martires are two of the zones in Bogotá with the highest levels of CSEC. It is believed that the risks are so high there because of the very visible presence of sex workers. Santa Fe is a designated ‘tolerance zone’ where sex workers are permitted to operate without prosecution and can be seen in large numbers at all hours of the day.
This means that just on their way to and from school children pass groups of sex workers, and people who pay for sex, on the streets. The police rarely enter these neighbourhoods, as a result of which there are also high levels of gang activity and drugs. Children and young people living in these areas are therefore extremely vulnerable to CSEC and other forms of physical and sexual abuse.
How ACJ Bogotá is addressing this issue
ACJ Bogotá (which is the YMCA in Colombia) is a leading young people’s NGO in Colombia. They run a range of high quality, sustainable services to support young people at risk on issues including educational exclusion, labour exploitation, drug abuse, and restorative juvenile justice. ACJ has been combating commercial sexual exploitation for several years. Our current three-year project has been developed using the lessons learned from their previous work on the issue, including a pilot project we supported them to run in 2016.
What does the project do?
ACJ has a youth centre in the middle of the 'tolerance zone', which is a protective oasis for children and young people at risk of CSEC in the local area. Each year, 100 children aged 6 - 18 years attend regular recreational workshops there where they learn about the different forms that CSEC can take and what to do if threatened by it. They also learn that CSEC is not normal but a violation of their rights, and that they are not to blame if they experience it. Those who require it also receive a free hot meal at the centre. ACJ is also working with these children's parents, teaching them how they can help protect their children from CSEC, for example by teaching them about social media and how to help keep their children safe online.
Young adults who are already involved in sex work/sexual exploitation are also participating in activities to help them gain the confidence to escape it, find other ways to earn money, and where necessary to provide support to their own children. Those who dropped out of school as children are offered academic 'catch-up' courses that enable them to gain primary and secondary school qualifications.
In addition to this, ACJ is working in nearby schools to raise awareness of CSEC among around 600 students and 30 teachers each year, and training teachers and youth leaders on what they should do to protect children who they identify as being at risk.
To encourage long-term protection of children, community members including street vendors and shopkeepers are taking part in activities to raise their awareness of CSEC, enabling them to identify it when they see it happening and encouraging them to take action to stop it.
Representatives of local government institutions, NGOs, universities and other relevant institutions have formed a 'CSEC Committee' which meets regularly to discuss best practice for CSEC prevention and develop care pathways for children experiencing this form of abuse.
Case Study: Sandra's story
"My story is a hard one to tell. After my parents separated when I was 11 years old, a friend of theirs sexually abused me. I got pregnant but lost the baby after a few months. Shortly after, I ran away from home and started dealing and taking drugs. I had two children but their father left me to raise them without any money or any support. I felt there was no other option – I started working as a prostitute.
It was then that ACJ approached me and started to help me. Before I enrolled in their project, my children stayed indoors all day because I was too afraid for them to go out and play on the streets. Now, they participate in workshops which teach them how to avoid sexual exploitation and drugs. They are a lot happier and so am I as I know they will have a much better childhood and life than I did.
I have also been participating in ACJ's project for one year. With the support, guidance and opportunities they have given me, I have finally managed to leave sex work. I am now studying and thanks to the family workshops, I am now much more committed to my children. These workshops have reassured me and helped me gain access to my rights, participate in beauty training and made me realise I want a fresh start in life. I am looking for a job to provide a better future and life for me and my children."
Thank you for your interest in this project
To help ACJ's work continue, you can donate here.