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«Action for the Rights of Children (ARC) Critical Issues Abuse and Exploitation CONTENTS BRIEFING NOTES FOR FACILITATORS Page Introduction Topic 1: ...»

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An Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 2 addresses three forms of sexual exploitation: (1) the sale of children, defined as any act or transaction whereby a child is transferred by any person or group of persons to another for remuneration or any other consideration; (2) child prostitution, the use of a child in sexual activities for remuneration or any other form of consideration; and (3) child pornography, any representation, by whatever

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means, of a child engaged in real or simulated explicit sexual activities or any representation of the sexual parts of a child for primarily sexual purposes.

While child sexual exploitation affects girls more than boys, it is important not to lose sight of the affects for both genders. In many societies there is a greater taboo placed on the sexual exploitation of boys, which may mean that incidences of abuse and exploitation are even more under-reported than they are for girls.


Overhead 1.1: Key Learning Points for Topic 1 Summary of key learning points.

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While most research and literature is based on western societies, a significant exception is Korbin, Jill E. (1981): “Child Abuse and Neglect: Cross-Cultural Perspectives”, Berkley, University of California Press. This book has been significant in informing this Topic.

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• Refugee and displaced children and adolescents may be at increased risk of abuse and exploitation for a variety of reasons; these may include separation from their families, lack of access to education, and the need to take on adult responsibilities such as caring for siblings.

• Poverty and social inequalities are significant in determining which children work, the kinds of work they do, and their working conditions.

Decisions to work are greatly influenced by whether children have access to relevant education and vocational training.

• Armed conflict may increase the level of risk and vulnerability of children to becoming victims of sexual violence and exploitation. When determining a child’s level of risk and vulnerability it is important to consider the political, social and economic reality of the situation where the child is living. Poverty is often a root cause of many forms of exploitation.


Almost half of all refugees are children and adolescents. Uprooted from their homes, forced to leave behind relatives, friends, familiar surroundings and established social networks, they may be exposed to an increased level of risk and vulnerability of becoming victims of abuse and exploitation. Children who are displaced in their own countries may also face perilous circumstances, lacking both protection and assistance. In addition, adolescents often find themselves overlooked by programmes addressing the needs of refugees and IDPs, which tend to focus on adults as the decision-makers or on younger children who are seen to be “the most needy”.

For refugee or internally displaced families and children who are returning to home communities, many barriers may be encountered during reintegration, and ensuring education and re-establishing family life and productive livelihoods may be difficult.

Various factors may place children and adolescents at risk of either exploitative child labour or sexual exploitation (including commercial exploitation).

• Separation from families denies children the protection and guidance of parents and other family members. Abuse within institutions is thought to be widespread. Unaccompanied children may have to fend for themselves, while

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children in foster homes may have to fulfil expectations of contributing to the household economy. Exercise 4.3 is also relevant to separated children.

• Adolescent heads of households and children of disabled parents often have to accept adult responsibilities, including economic ones, which may make them especially vulnerable.

• Lack of access to education places pressures on young people. Even if school exists, children may not be able to enrol because they lack proper documentation, are not considered residents of the area or are unable to pay school fees. This may lead to feelings of exclusion and pessimism in relation to their future.

• Family poverty, and the associated sense of desperation that often go hand-inhand with the refugee experience, is often a root cause of both exploitative child labour and sexual exploitation.

• The experience of flight and conditions in refugee camps may place children at increased risk of sexual exploitation.


In addition to the issues highlighted above, other specific considerations may

involve considerable risk factors for refugee and displaced children:

1. Prior to flight, children are often targeted for abuse by the military, police and/or other persons in positions of power in the country of origin. Frequently, children have been subjected to sexual abuse during internal conflict, prompting the desire to flee. Peacekeeping troops may also be involved. Sexual violence may even happen with the complicity of male or female community members, in the form of bartering women and children for arms and ammunition or other benefits.

2. During flight, children (especially young girls) are particularly vulnerable to sexual attacks by pirates, bandits, members of the security forces or armed groups, smugglers and other refugees. Border guards may detain and abuse women and young girls; pirates may capture them and extort sex in exchange for their safety or onward passage; and smugglers may assist female refugees across the border in exchange for sex and/or money.

3. Refugees and displaced persons are likely to find themselves living in camp situations or in close urban quarters. Under such conditions children, and their families, may be particularly vulnerable to misuse of power and authority by officials. For example, some refugee girls may be approached for sexual favours in exchange for assistance, such as during food distribution.

Sometimes humanitarian workers are involved in sexual exploitation.

Separated children are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and may suffer sexual abuse by foster family members.

4. Refugee and displaced children are at an increased risk of sexual exploitation and violence owing to their environment, restricted access to resources and basic services, security and, in some cases, family support and affection. This environment may create a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness for both the children and their families. Feelings of desperation, influenced by an

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increasing sense of marginalisation, may lead to the targeting of children for sexual exploitation and violence.

5. During repatriation operations, large population movements may separate women and children from their support systems. Crowding and other changes leave children vulnerable to the same dangers they faced during flight and exile.

6. During the reintegration phase, returnees, particularly women and children, may be targeted by the local military or government in retribution for having fled. Special attention must be paid to women and children during this phase to prevent sexual extortion in exchange for material assistance, protection or documentation.

7. Vulnerability and risk are cumulative. Children can experience an accumulation of risk as their basic emotional and physical needs are ignored. Children subjected to one form of abuse or exploitation become increasingly vulnerable to other forms. For example, a domestic child worker may be exposed to physical, mental and sexual abuse owing to isolation and lack of protection. In addition, tasks traditionally allocated to girls (such as carrying water or collecting firewood) may expose them to additional risks of sexual abuse, owing to the fact that they may be forced to go to remote and potentially unsafe areas. Separated children may be at increased risk of exploitative child labour, sexual abuse and recruitment into armed services.

8. In some situations, rape and sexual exploitation have become almost systemic, to the point where it is no longer reported because it has been perceived as a “normal” part of people’s experience.

Situations of armed conflict and displacement may result in an increase in child abuse and neglect within the family. This issue is dealt with in some detail in Topic 9 of this resource pack.



Refugee and displaced families are cut-off from the economic structures of their former community and are often denied access to economic opportunities in their host community. Like all families, they have certain members who must earn a livelihood to support other members. Particularly when living in camp settings, these traditional wage earners are often unable to find relevant work in their new environment.

Traditional wage earners’ decreased income often leads families to seek supplementary income from other members. At the same time, many children, particularly adolescents, have reached an age where they are physically able to perform the same work as adults. Many are asked to take on a greater responsibility for the economic survival of their family, or asked to work for no pay within the home in order to enable other members to work. This work is often performed by girls, spending long hours doing housework and minding younger siblings, and is not only performed unnoticed but impacts their ability to attend school.

Which children work, the kinds of work they do, and their working conditions will be

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affected by levels of poverty and social inequalities based on gender, ethnicity, age, class and caste.

As children and adolescents (and their families) make decisions concerning whether or not to forgo education in favour of work, they weigh the importance of earning extra income in the present in relation to the possibility of securing greater income in the future through education. The availability and relevance of school and vocational training to a child’s prospects of future work therefore affect this decision.

Lack of access to adequate education may be a contributing factor to why children work, but even if education is provided, it may not keep all children from working.

In most situations, school terms and school times are not adjusted to fit in with the pattern of children’s work. Many children and adolescents are solely responsible for themselves and the economic welfare of their families. Where schooling is not free, some children may have to work in order to earn money for their school fees or expenses (e.g. books and uniforms). These issues are considered in more detail in the Resource Pack on Education Topic 7.

Poverty and lack of education are common reasons why children work, but this does not justify the condoning of labour that is harmful and exploitative. Parents of working children are often unemployed or underemployed, yet their children are offered jobs because they accept less pay, are more malleable, and more easily exploited.


Overhead 2.1: Key Learning Points for Topic 2 Summary of key learning points

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Exercise 4.3 is a useful illustration of the vulnerability of separated children to institutional abuse.

Much of the material in this section is derived from: “Sexual Violence against Refugees:

Guidelines on Prevention and Response”, Geneva, UNHCR (1995).

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• Children work for a range of different reasons in differing cultural, social and economic circumstances.

• Different types of work can be examined by considering job activity, the work environment, the presence of particular hazards, the perceived benefits of work, and the nature of the employment relationship.

• Gender issues need to be considered.

• The relationship between children’s work and education is a complex one. Care needs to be taken in determining whether children’s work should be regarded as a problem that needs to be addressed. Children’s own views will be essential in determining whether child labour constitutes a protection or assistance problem.


There are many reasons why children and adolescents work.

• In some cases they are simply conforming to cultural norms. In many societies, it is normal for girls to undertake certain domestic tasks, or to care for younger siblings, and for boys to undertake other kinds of duties within or outside of the family economy. The concept of childhood as a life-stage in which children are dependent and are only involved in play and education is a distinctive western construction. Most societies see it as normal and positive for children of particular ages to undertake particular types of work. Work is seen as having an educative value as well as an economic one.

• In other situations, economic pressures compel young people to undertake work of a nature, or at an age, which is not within such cultural norms.

Circumstances may require young people to contribute to the family economy when the family is faced with severe poverty and possibly limited opportunities for the adults to work. The particular problems facing refugee families may compel children to seek work in non-traditional areas in order to ensure family survival. Separated children, children in child-headed households and the children of disabled parents may be under particular pressure to seek paid work.

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