The commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) of women and girls in the Dominican Republic (DR) is a substantial problem. Understanding the current nature and scale of this phenomenon is critical to an effective response. An ILO study in 2003 reported that the total number of people in prostitution in the country was between 25,000 and 35,000, an estimated 60% of whom had entered the industry as minors. Other studies over the past 15 years have consistently reported high numbers of children being exploited in this industry; however, there has been no study in recent years measuring real time the prevalence of minors currently engaged in CSE in the DR. In late 2013, International Justice Mission (IJM) began working alongside the Dominican government in combating the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). This study, conducted in 2014, aimed to fill this research gap with a statistically significant measurement, as well as to provide a sound launching point from which to assess the effectiveness of joint interventions to address CSEC by the Dominican government and IJM in the coming years.
After consultation with a variety of government and non-governmental stakeholders, IJM investigators conducted an initial mapping exercise of all locations where commercial sexual exploitation was consistently known to occur across 20 towns in the DR. In total, 233 establishments (bars, brothels, car washes, etc.) and 51 non-establishments (streets, beaches, parks, etc.) were mapped. Due to the nature of CSE in the DR, the study team integrated a traditional establishment-based method and a more innovative, street-based method which involved “catchment areas” around the randomly selected locations. Aiming for a statistically significant sample size, by the end of the study, data collectors had surveyed 206 randomly selected locations, including 150 establishments and 56 distinct non-establishments. Data collectors gathered both quantitative and qualitative information on the nature and prevalence of minors in commercial sexual exploitation, through direct observation and interactions with adults in the commercial sex industry, children in CSE, pimps and madams, and other intermediaries.
The prevalence of CSEC in the targeted areas of the Dominican Republic was 10.0%. Prevalence of CSEC was higher in parks, beaches, and street areas, where 23.9% —or nearly one in every four individuals—observed were under 18. In establishments, such as bars, clubs, and car washes, 5.8%—or one in twenty—of all commercial sex workers were under 18. A significant majority (92.8%) of these minors in CSE were Dominican. The overwhelming majority of minors found engaged in commercial sexual exploitation in the Dominican Republic were between the ages of 15 and 17. This study found very few minors below the age of 14 (0.6%).
Overall, compared to the total number of sex workers observed, minors were observed more frequently in non-establishment locations. The majority of minor victims of commercial sexual exploitation observed in streets, parks, and beaches had no observable third party present with them at the time of data collection who was evidently profiting from their activities. An estimated 64.1% of the minors observed in CSE exhibited no observable indications of thirdparty exploitation. However, pimps, madams, and other intermediaries routinely offered to deliver minors from other locations. In 90% of places where minors could not be observed, investigators were ‘promised’ minors. In terms of establishment-based CSE, the majority takes place informally in bars, clubs, and known ‘meeting places,’ where clients can consistently find and make contact with adult CSWs and minors in CSE.
Both those who exploit and sell minors for CSE and those who buy sex with minors engaged in CSE are perpetrators of crimes under Dominican law. The perpetrators observed selling children for CSE during this study were mostly opportunistic criminals, rather than organized criminal networks. The majority were Dominican. Furthermore, foreigners suspected to be sex customers were present in 23.3% of locations where commercial sex workers were present and in 25.9% of locations where minors in CSE were observed, indicating that the majority of CSE buyers are Dominican as well. The majority (70.5%) of the foreigners were observed in nine locations in the towns of Bavaro, Boca Chica, Cabarete, Juan Dolio, and Sosua. The overwhelming majority of foreigners observed were “white Americans” or “other whites.” Police were present in 12.6% of locations surveyed in the study, and when present, they did not appear to make any efforts to enforce laws against CSEC, even though a reasonable observer could see minors engaging with adults.
The scope of this study leaves room for further research. First, one lacking element surrounding the prevalence figures is a full spectrum understanding of the minors’ circumstances leading up to and around their engagement in commercial sexual exploitation. Second, researchers should investigate whether the sexual exploitation of male children is occurring in the Dominican Republic and if so, should further research the scale and nature of that phenomenon, perhaps using a respondent driven sampling methodology. Third, exploring the circumstances of those minors engaged in commercial sexual exploitation with no observable third party was beyond the scope of this study. More in-depth qualitative research involving interviews with these minors would uncover more information about their situations, the nature and extent of third-party exploitation, and any non-observable psychologically manipulative tactics exerted by pimps, madams, and other intermediaries. All three of these are critical research gaps for both public justice system officials and other service providers in designing and implementing effective prevention, deterrence, and aftercare strategies and programs.
The findings also highlighted parts of the phenomenon that went beyond the remit of this study. First, the results strongly suggest the existence of a robust hotel and cabaña industry that provides rooms for adults to use to engage in sexual activity with minors. Interviews or further investigation with a variety of business owners, targeted particularly towards local, small hotels and cabañas, would help provide information to policymakers and those entities establishing regulations on the business and tourism sector about the connection and involvement of the hotel and bar industries in facilitation or provision of an enabling environment for commercial sexual exploitation. Second, the original scoping and stakeholder assessment indicated a higher number of Haitian girls engaged in CSEC in the Dominican Republic than what the data collectors observed in this study. Further research along the Haitian border would help resolve this discrepancy. Lastly, given the low percentage of foreigners present in places where CSE and CSEC were happening, additional research in the form of interviews of Dominican “johns” should be conducted to better understand the attitudes, motivations, perceptions, and common behaviors of men who buy sex from CSWs and in particular, with minors.
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