Background and Rationale
Violence against children, including child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA), is estimated to affect millions of children worldwide and no country or region is immune. It has the potential to impact upon children in all socio-economic groups, of all educational levels, and across all ethnic and cultural groups. While data about sexual exploitation of all children is generally lacking, this is even more so when looking at boys specifically. For example, in the rare cases that countries collect prevalence data on sexual exploitation and abuse of children, samples are often limited to adolescent girls, obscuring any understanding of the unique experiences and vulnerabilities of boys. In recent years, there has been an increasing awareness of the gap in the global understanding of how boys are impacted by sexual exploitation, and the limited evidence available suggests that in certain contexts, boys are just as heavily impacted as girls, and in some contexts, maybe even more. Boys – regardless of whether they are heterosexual or of diverse sexual orientation – may also face legal consequences in countries where homosexuality is criminalised, as is the case in Sri Lanka, if they disclose that they were victimised by an offender of the same sex.
The influence of gender norms around masculinity and femininity are important to consider in understanding child sexual exploitation and abuse, and we can observe that what is attributed to one gender, is often denied to others. These norms typically hold that males are strong and invulnerable, less likely to be victimised and seriously affected, and more resilient – while females are considered vulnerable, more often abused, more significantly affected and in need of support. Such beliefs often hamper equitable and necessary discourse on the sexual exploitation of children of all genders, but especially for boys where the development of policies, practices, advocacy, and research methodologies about the sexual exploitation of children regularly underrepresents, or even completely excludes boys. “While many vulnerability factors for sexual exploitation and abuse are common to all genders, boys’ access to support is unquestioningly conditioned by gender norms, constraining their help-seeking behaviour and their ability to seek care.”
While these circumstances should by no means detract attention from continued research, advocacy, and support for girls subjected to sexual exploitation, there is a clear need for greater advocacy, understanding and a higher quality evidence-base on the sexual exploitation of children of all genders, to better inform all work to prevent and respond appropriately to their needs.
A Global Boys’ Initiative
As the programmatic responses to identify and meet the needs of boys are scarce, ECPAT International launched the Global Boys’ Initiative to explore the sexual exploitation of boys, activating our worldwide network of member organisations in a range of research and response activities focused on boys. To meet the initial challenge of such limited data, in 2020-21, the Global Boys’ Initiative embarked on a series of research projects in ten countries around the world, to shed light on understanding sexual exploitation involving boys, what factors lead to their vulnerability and increased risk, and what their needs are in terms of prevention, protection and support services. Much of this initial research phase was generously funded by SIDA, which allowed primary research to be conducted through partnerships between the ECPAT International secretariat and national ECPAT member organisations.
The organisation Protecting Environment and Children Everywhere, also known as PEaCE and operating as ECPAT Sri Lanka (hereafter referred to as ECPAT Sri Lanka), has been at the forefront of actions to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation of children in Sri Lanka since 1991 and was a founding member of the global ECPAT International network. ECPAT Sri Lanka and ECPAT International partnered for a ground-breaking research project into the sexual exploitation of boys in Sri Lanka during 2021, with results captured in this report.
The project in Sri Lanka included the following activities:
- A survey of frontline social support workers from a range of services in Sri Lanka, most likely to have contact with boys who have experienced sexual exploitation or abuse.
- An analysis of Sri Lanka’s legal framework that protects children from sexual exploitation, with a focus on boys.
The findings captured in this report are intended to identify existing strengths, areas for improvement, and inform legal and service developments to ensure that they are gender-sensitive and accessible for children of all genders. It is hoped that the findings will also contribute to breaking down the stigma and taboos surrounding boys’ experiences of sexual exploitation and abuse in Sri Lanka. Clear, actionable recommendations that are driven by the evidence, are also provided.
Read or download full report here.