Protection of Frontline Welfare Workers on the Sexual Exploitation of Children in the Pacific

This paper details the results of a survey with 84 frontline welfare workers in seven Pacific countries. The results offer a snapshot of the context of sexual exploitation of children (SEC) in the Pacific and key issues affecting children’s vulnerability, ability to access support services, and frontline worker’s ability to provide support to them. All participants worked as welfare service providers directly managing cases that included children. The online survey consisted of approximately 60 multiple-choice questions and a small number of short open-answer questions. Many participants shared additional observations and illustrative anecdotes throughout the survey that further shed light on the challenges and potential opportunities for action and progress in this area. It should be noted that the data is not statistically representative of the experiences of all frontline workers in the region, and cases described are merely recalled estimates rather than detailed administrative counts. However, the estimates, perceptions and experiences reported here offer valuable insight into an under-researched and under-reported area of child protection. Quotes and comments are also included throughout the paper to further illuminate the data.

Specifically, the survey aimed to gather data from frontline workers that indicated:

  • The extent of SEC in the Pacific region;
  • The level of awareness of SEC amongst service providers; and
  • The impact of cultural and social norms on SEC.

Several reoccurring themes in participants’ responses aligned with the evidence of known trends in SEC and known barriers to holistic and collaborative responses to this issue. Children’s increased vulnerability due to growing access to technology and limited awareness of criminal offenses regarding the online sexual exploitation of children featured commonly in participants’ observations.

The invaluable role of current efforts to equip parents and families with the knowledge and tools to foster protective environments for girls as well as boys, was one of the most prominent themes in the survey responses. Additionally, cultural taboos around discussing sex and the stigma that victims encounter were consistently listed as primary factors that make it difficult for children to seek help and access services. Participants also frequently described how gaps in funding have restricted their organisations’ ability to conduct critical community outreach activities, particularly in rural areas and remote islands. Many participants emphasized the need for urgent training to develop the capacity of themselves and colleagues to more effectively manage SEC cases with greater sensitivity and to better support vulnerable children.

Despite the numerous obstacles that frontline workers indicated in this project, the findings also revealed the incredible dedication of many of the participants and their organizations. Even in the context of extremely limited resources, participants often expressed a strong desire to learn more about SEC, how to more effectively address it in their communities, and to help others to do the same. There are many champions working on the frontlines to raise the public awareness of SEC, and child protection generally. ECPAT International hopes the survey findings summarised in this paper may be used to generate momentum and highlight the urgent need for fundraising, further research, dedicated programming, awareness campaigns and legislative reforms addressing the sexual exploitation of children.