A few weeks ago I read a report about child sex trafficking in Sri Lanka that left me depressed, but which also made me think and gave me some ideas. The report highlighted a paradox that faces Sri Lankan women, many of whom travel abroad as domestic servants to make money to send home: “Sri Lanka has the highest proportion in South Asia of females working abroad for employment, and these comprise primarily women who have young children.” Not only do some of these women end up in bad situations abroad, such as being trafficked themselves or being forced to work for abusive employers, but their very act of leaving may spell doom for the children they left in order to help. One of the findings indicated that children whose mothers went abroad were more vulnerable to sexual abuse and trafficking at the hands of their fathers, uncles, grandfathers, friends, neighbors, etc.
In many parts of Sri Lanka girls who have been sexually abused are considered unclean and are forced to leave their homes and families as they are considered a bad influence on other children. Often rape and trafficking victims will end up in state children’s homes for their “protection”. They may have been rescued, but as prostitution can be treated like a crime and the court system is slow it may take years for children to get out of these remand centers. Yet another problem is lack of knowledge about trafficking among children, adults, and even police and other officials who are supposed to help victims. One of the saddest issues the report mentions is that the exploited often become the exploiters because the system does not give them justice and the cultural setup alienates them from returning to a normal life.
So what can be done to change this? The report outlines many factors that affect children being trafficked, such as parents being detached, a lack of sexual education, the incentive of money, etc. There are many ways to address these issues, some of which require fairly simple measures like education programs, training, and new legislation, but deep societal change is also necessary, which is much harder. Beyond educating school children about sexual abuse and trafficking, more fun and creative measures can be applied such as extracurriculars and vocational training: the report cites music, English, and computer classes as ways that children can gain skills to keep them from being lured into prostitution and also to help them reintegrate into society if they are victims. Harder to solve are the problems that involve the family and communities. It appears that mothers are vital in keeping their children safe, but the economic situation forces many abroad. Another related problem is alcoholism among fathers. The report suggests economic workshops, help finding employment, and welfare programs to help parents.
While the report emphasizes that mothers should stay in Sri Lanka to protect their children, I think the real issue here is that when they do leave, people these children should trust are violating their rights. It would be ideal if mothers did not have to leave their children and go abroad to find work, but that is the current economic reality of Sri Lanka. What must change is relatives, friends, neighbors, and communities seeing these children as easy targets to manipulate instead of vulnerable children who need their help more than ever. The support structure of the family and community is where it seems like the focus is really needed in order to help Sri Lankan children stay safe from sexual abuse and trafficking.