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Children are easy targets for exploitation and traffickers during Covid-19

- Ajwang’ Warria, Margaret Roper, Marcel van der Watt, Susan Marx and Heather Dixon

The theme for this year’s Child Protection Week, which began on 31 May, is “Let us all protect children during Covid-19 and beyond”.

Child trafficking is the buying and selling of children for exploitative purposes such as sex, labour and domestic work. Globally, one in every three victims of trafficking is a child. However, characteristics linked to the age profile and risk factors of the victims vary from region to region and also differ according to social contexts.

According to a recent report released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), children make up a third of trafficking victims who are identified and rescued – a figure that has tripled in the past 15 years, with girls mainly being trafficked and exploited for sex and boys for (forced) labour.

The profile of a child victim of trafficking is often characterised by many intersecting vulnerabilities. Age-related risks are compounded by socioeconomic dimensions and other factors such as the child’s behavioural and developmental needs, lack of parental care and/or dysfunctional families. In addition, domestic violence, migration and discrimination can increase a child’s risks to trafficking.

The vulnerabilities that are evident in child victims of trafficking are often connected to their family background. In poor communities, socioeconomic and social norms play a big role in trafficking, whereas in more affluent communities dysfunctional parenting or lack of parental care may make the child vulnerable. Generally, children with family problems are easy to recruit because traffickers create some attachment with or a sense of belonging in the victim. Traffickers use drugs or alcohol and isolation tactics to increase their control over the child.

Although children are not the face of Covid-19, they risk being among its biggest victims based on the pandemic’s broader economic and social disruptions. The pandemic and the lockdowns have exacerbated children’s vulnerability – especially with partial or full school closures, and the loss of school-based services and nutrition programmes. While online learning has benefited some children, those children who do not have access to devices and the internet have suffered greatly.

The lockdown, school closures, and increased poverty rates during the pandemic mean that some areas have experienced increases in child labour, girls entering child marriages or boys being recruited into armed groups or gangs. Other regions have seen increases in teen pregnancies and abused children.

The volume of exploitative material online has increased considerably as traffickers have integrated technology and use digital hunting grounds. With more unsupervised children online and younger children accessing the internet, it has become easy for traffickers to approach and “court” children and young people on social media. In the quest for friendship, acceptance, affection and attention, children become easy targets for traffickers and exploiters.

Traffickers are also adapting their strategies, taking advantage of publicly available personal information, easily blending into social activities online and being anonymous in online spaces. Live streaming, webcams and other digital platforms are creating new forms of exploitation – where there is no need for transportation and transfer of victims and which allow for simultaneous abuse by multiple perpetrators in multiple locations.

What can be done to protect children from trafficking during Covid-19 and beyond?

  • Addressing known risk and vulnerability factors from a systemic perspective – looking at individual and demographic perspectives, household and family factors, community-level factors, structural factors and situational factors that temporarily increase exposure to child rights violations, gender inequalities and violence.
  • Implementing prevention activities such as promoting community awareness through education, fostering coalitions and networks, educating service providers and changing organisational practices.
  • Expanding social assistance to families.
  • Encouraging child participation in decision-making processes and in the development of interventions to protect children from exploitation and trafficking.
  • Addressing the psychosocial impact of the crisis on children and young people and having specific interventions for vulnerable children.
  • Advocating for the development of a collective distance public education system and additional support for children with disabilities.
  • Providing practical support to parents and caregivers.
  • Strengthening the child protection systems before pandemics in order to prevent or mitigate the increased risks of abuse and exploitation during periods of crisis.
  • Prioritising the continuity of child-centred services and advocating for resources to ensure telehealth and telesocial service access and expansion of outreach strategies such as home visits, mobile clinics etc;
  • Collecting data and the development of rapid assessment and response tools to gauge the effect of the pandemic on children, families and essential child protection services.
  • Reporting suspicious cases of child exploitation and trafficking to a social worker, the police or to the nearest Department of Social Development office or child welfare organisation.

The Covid-19 pandemic is an unparalleled crisis that presents extraordinary risks and challenges to the rights, safety, protection, care, development, and survival of children globally and in South Africa. These risks and challenges can only be mitigated and addressed through unique, innovative, equitable, culturally relevant, and cohesive interventions for children. Without quick concerted action, Covid-19 will have devastating impacts on children and other vulnerable populations in our society. However, we have the opportunity to defeat this pandemic and through it, uphold children’s rights and transform the way we nurture, develop and invest in children and young people.

During Child Protection Week, take the time to acknowledge the children around you and in your community and commit yourself to become part of the process of striving for and working towards the safety, care and protection of all children during Covid-19 and beyond.

This work is made possible through support from USAID and the South African Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), as a supplement to a USAID Cooperative Agreement #7200AA18CA00009 (LASER-PULSE) to Purdue University. Contents reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of USAID or DSI.

Ajwang’ Warria is a Lecturer in the Social Work Department at Wits University. Together with Margaret Roper, Marcel van der Watt, Susan Marx and Heather Dixon, he is a researcher on a National Counter-Trafficking study in South Africa. This article was first published in Daily Maverick/Maverick Citizen.