Our War against Child Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism (SECTT)
By the late 1980s, a surge of tourism was on the rise in Sri Lanka. The leaders of the nation had realized the scope of the tourism industry as a major foreign income generator. As such, they went to great extents to attract more tourists. Tranquil and reserved places of history and culture, within the country, were practically auctioned off by the industry leaders. Huge hotels rose on lands where there were once deep, lush forests and beautiful, serene beaches. Temples served the tourists instead of the gods. The locals vied with each other to satisfy the bizarre demands of the exotic white-skinned visitors. It was an era where tourists were considered the gods of Sri Lanka. Anything that they wanted or asked for was handed to them on a silver platter… no matter how illegal or taboo.
In these circumstances, the foreign tourists thought that they had found their paradise. Especially those who couldn’t satisfy their illicit interests and urges in their home countries. Amongst these shady characters were sex tourists targeting children.
Child sexual abuse, in particular, became a very lucrative trade amongst certain circles, due to the lack of clear laws and the indifference of the government. If a tourist sexually abused a child; the child was either encouraged to continue and get more money in such a manner, or even blamed for the actions of the abuser. Regardless of the situation, the tourists went scot-free. There were even pimps who specialized in selling children to the tourists. A number of victimized children from tourism centers even became used to the exploitation and life of abuse. They began to look forward to the benefits, such as money and expensive goods that such abusers gifted them with. They came to live the lives of prostitutes with no hope of a future. Sri Lanka became a popular destination for child sex tourism.
It was in this environment that PEaCE was formed, with the sole intention of curbing the rampant sexual exploitation of children through travel and tourism (SECTT) that was occurring, and protecting the vulnerable children of Sri Lanka. It originated from the End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT) initiative that was formed in 1990. PEaCE began its activities as a registered NGO of Sri Lanka in 1991, and over the next two decades and more, waged a major, continuous war on child sex tourism.
PEaCE conducted research on the effects of SECTT. Awareness was raised amongst school children and communities. The police and other child related government officials were trained on the procedures to follow with regards to SECTT crimes. The members of the organizations combed the slums of the beaches and cities near tourist attractions to identify vulnerable children, who they then educated on the dangers of SECTT and the methods to protect themselves. These children who rarely got the chance to receive schooling, received special education classes from PEaCE – creating a better foundation for their lives. Hoteliers, travel and tourism industry personnel were invited to specially designed and targeted awareness programs and trainings on SECTT. A number of tourists were caught red-handed, with the assistance of PEaCE while abusing children, and the organization helped bring justice to the victims. The awareness of the country, as a whole, rose with regards to the sexual exploitation of children through tourism and travelers.
The process was not without its challenges. The authorities threatened PEaCE of slander. There was even an instance where the Executive Director was summoned by the tourist police for a bald statement of facts in an event. The local communities, guest house keepers and hoteliers who lived off the gains from letting tourists prey on children, were also resentful.
There was also another breed of sex offenders, who purchased houses in the rural villages of Sri Lanka with the enormous cooperation of the locals – who were under the mistaken impression that such a purchase would make the village more modern and affluent. They then spent long periods of time grooming the communities to accept their activities. The villages were given expensive gifts, money and treated to feasts. Once they became dependent and lax in their attention, the perpetrators would prey on the children in the village in full view of the locals. These acts were ignored by the villagers in favor of the benefits that they received. When PEaCE took action on such offenders, and had them arrested and brought to courts – there were often crowds of rabid locals protesting the arrest of their benefactor. They became blinded by their greed and remained unconcerned about the crimes that were being committed.
However, with time and the hard work from PEaCE, the outlook of the country changed. The government established stricter laws. A Presidential committee were formed to address the issue. A separate bureau was created in the police department to deal with crimes against children and women. The National Child Protection Authority was formed. Tourism personnel and other private sector personnel became more aware. There was more support for activities against SECTT amongst tourism officials and the police. PEaCE received support from international organizations such as the German Travel Association, who sponsored and conducted awareness programs aimed towards raising awareness about SECTT in the tourism sector. Over 25 years have now passed since the inception of PEaCE. The organization now focuses on child sexual abuse and exploitation as a whole. However, SECTT continues to be one of our main focus areas. With tourism being a game changer in Sri Lanka, the Ministry of Tourism continues to focus on expanding the industry. The country aims to bring in an annual number of 2 Million tourists within the next few years. As such, PEaCE has been working consistently to create better awareness and training amongst the tourism sector, the community and the government officials, so that our children may be safe. And so the story continues….a saga for the safety and protection of the children of Sri Lanka.