An estimated 500,000 children and adolescents are forced into commercial sexual exploitation (CSEC) in Brazil – an invisible and partially normalised problem. The issue is driven by social and economic inequalities, worsened by the recent economic crisis and covid-19. The pandemic disrupted the identification of and support to victims, as well as the prosecution of offenders. Yet, evidence on these changing dynamics remains extremely limited.
A multi-year study by the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab, the Federal University of Pernambuco, and the Freedom Fund centred on survivors’ experiences to inform upcoming state and national plans to address CSEC. Findings highlight the disproportionate impact of covid-19 on children aged 17 and younger, and especially those from less affluent backgrounds. Driven by school closures and technological barriers that prevented these children from accessing education, and compounded by parents earning less or losing their livelihoods entirely, many children were forced to work – including in commercial sex.
Official statistics paint an unclear picture. There were fewer calls to a national hotline in 2020, likely due to less referrals being made from schools and institutions rather than reflecting a ‘real’ drop in violations. At the same time, reports of online abusive material increased significantly during the pandemic. For example, in the first four months of 2021 alone, there was a 33 percent growth in webpages with child sexual abuse material (SaferNet Brasil, 2021), with numbers continuing to grow in subsequent years.
Children who have navigated support services expressed a high level of frustration. Many have experienced a “labyrinth” or “boomerang” effect – being successively referred to multiple, ineffective services; or going in and out of services, perpetuating a cycle of violence and neglect.
Child survivors involved in the research identified a number of recommendations to improve support services. These included: having frontline staff who are accepting rather than judgemental; presenting clear information for children to consider their options; securing basic needs, including food; and creating a physically comfortable environment. Building trust and regaining control over their lives were identified as key building-blocks of safety.
The Brazilian government’s consultation process on policies to address CSEC is a welcomed move. However, the lack of evaluations on the effectiveness of prior policies is a key gap. There is also a concern that the conservative position adopted by the previous Brazilian government has also weakened the participatory consultation process, and subsequently the content of the new national CSEC plan.
The study’s recommendations for the Government of Brazil are:
- Use a participatory and democratic process to review the National and State Plans for Addressing Sexual Violence against Children and Adolescents to ensure effective implementation. This should include listening to survivors’ voices and respecting the role held by the Councils for the Rights of Children and Adolescents.
- Improve collection and availability of data, including implementation of a national CSEC prevalence study. Implement processes to ensure transparency and easy access to critical, official data.
- Strengthen the Guardianship Councils and the Councils for the Rights of Children and Adolescents in the municipal, state, and federal spheres. This includes providing adequate infrastructure to the Councils and resources and training for appointed councillors to enable them to correctly fulfil their role in the System for Guaranteeing the Rights of Children and Adolescents.
- Implement sex education as part of the school curriculum.
- Strengthen the policy to combat sexual violence against children and adolescents and expand the structures and response capacities of agencies that receive complaints, including protection networks.
Research briefings available below:
- Briefing focusing on young people’s experiences of accessing support services available in English and Portuguese.
- Briefing summarizing the process for reformulating key state and national plans to address CSEC in Brazil available in English and Portuguese.
- Briefing on how covid-19 impacted CSEC in Brazil available in English and Portuguese.