Sarah recently spoke at a conference on child protection in South Korea a copy of Sarah's speech is available below
It is a great honour for me to be here today to share my experience of child protection in the UK.
I have been a member of the British Parliament for five years. I represent an industrial town called Rotherham which is in Yorkshire, the North East of England. It is a small town. Historically, employment was in steel production and coal mining. Both of those industries are now greatly reduced, leaving large scale unemployment and poverty.
When I was elected in November 2012, I had never heard of child sexual exploitation (which I will now refer to as CSE). That changed within a few months of my appointment when I gradually discovered the scale of child abuse going on in our town. By August 2014, the whole world had heard of the Rotherham child abuse scandal as an investigation, funded by the local town council, uncovered organised abuse of at least 1400 children between 1997-2013.
This exploitation is still going on, and I have evidence showing it goes back to the early 1960’s.
When I talk of child sexual exploitation in the UK, I mean children under the age of 18, which is the legal, and the UNCRC, definition of a child.
In the UK, the age of consent is 16 but I hope to explain to you why the sexual abuse suffered by children between 16-18 years cannot be considered consensual and should be viewed as exploitation or rape.
The risks are, of course, increased when the age of consent is lower.
By sexual exploitation, I am referring to the coercion, intimidation, manipulation or the abuse of a person’s vulnerabilities; such as learning difficulties, economic hardship, drug and alcohol addictions or their mental health issues, being exploited in order to obtain sexual acts from a child.
In my experience, abuse is always about a power imbalance that is capitalised on. In the case of sexual exploitation, that power can take the form of violence, intimidation, the threat to harm others or denying access to work, housing or friendship groups. Blackmail and incremental escalation of abuse are also frequently used.
Child sexual exploitation takes on many forms with peer on peer abuse currently accounting for approximately 40% of the cases reported to the UK police. Let me be clear when I say peer on peer abuse, I am not talking about two 14 year olds having sex. I am talking about a 14-year-old manipulating, intimidating or coercing another 14 year old to have sex with them. The victim cannot give informed consent due to the power imbalance.
In the case of Rotherham, the child abuse was organised by gangs of men and followed a now well recognised pattern that we see replicated across the UK.
Let me tell you the story of Susan, which will highlight the escalation of child sexual exploitation. Susan was approached at the age of 12 by a 17-year-old boy from her school. Susan was flattered by the attention and started to consider the boy to be her boyfriend. He brought her presents, kept saying how pretty she was, met her at the park and encouraged her to start smoking. The boy showed Susan pornography on his phone. He persuaded Susan that if she loved him, she would do the things they were seeing in the videos. Susan didn’t want to, she started crying and the boy said she was a baby and he would get an older girlfriend.
In desperation, Susan had sex with him.
Susan didn’t know at the time that he had filmed them having sex. When he showed it to her, she was embarrassed and asked him to delete it. He wouldn’t, instead he showed it to his friends and demanded that Susan have sex with them too, or he would put the video on the internet. Terrified of what her parents would think, Susan had sex with his friends.
At that point things escalated quickly. Susan would be taken to different houses in Rotherham where adults she didn’t know would rape her. Susan would be given drugs and alcohol to keep her in a state of semi-consciousness. If she protested, she would be beaten. Her boyfriend was rarely around. When she saw him, she begged him to help her. He would just laugh and say she should do it to show that she loved him.
Her parents were aware of the dramatic changes in Susan. Always a bright and popular girl, her grades at school plummeted and she stopped seeing her friends. Rather than being home on time, Susan would be missing for hours. When her parents tried to talk to her about it, she would become incredibly angry and run away from home. Each time her parents reported her missing to the police, the police would say it was just a phase she was going through and, as long as she eventually came home – it was not a police matter.
Susan’s parents called the child protection team run by the local Authority. The social workers came and spoke to Susan. Susan was now 13. The social workers told Susan’s parents that, whilst not an adult, Susan was old enough to make her own choices and they should not be concerned that she was exploring her sexuality in a consensual relationship.
Susan’s Dad started to follow her.
He saw a parade of men going into the house he had followed Susan to. When she got home, he demanded to know what was happening. Susan broke down and told him the whole story.
Susan and her Dad went to the police and gave a statement. The police officer said that if she hung around with the wrong people she had to deal with the consequences. Even though Susan’s Dad wanted the men to be charged with child abuse, the officer said it was Susan’s word against theirs, so there was no point. The case was dropped before any investigation was done.
Just before her sixteenth birthday, Susan gave birth. Susan’s parents were blamed for their poor parenting. The child was immediately taken away and Susan was put into local Authority care. In care, the abusers had 24-hour access to Susan. She was trafficked and sexually exploited across the UK for the next four years. Three times she tried to kill herself, she can’t remember how many sexually transmitted diseases she has had. But for each one, she was seen by a health professional, who did nothing to prevent the abuse.
It has taken nearly twenty years for Susan to be seen as a victim of child sexual exploitation. We are still fighting to get justice for her, and the 1400 other girls, now women, survivors of this vile crime. These crimes continue across the country and whilst the UK is slowly starting to recognise the warning signs, not enough is being done to prevent or prosecute.
There are some in the UK who still blame the children for their own abuse. Child victims are still accused of encouraging the attacks through their revealing dress, their adult behaviour or because they mix with the wrong people. They are called prostitutes. Often the victims will genuinely believe their abuser is their boyfriend, not someone recruiting them for exploitation.
Let me be clear, these victims are children.
They should be fully protected as such under the law.
There should be no grey areas, and no mitigating circumstances, when it comes to protecting children.
Often children can be coerced into having sex as they perceive the alternatives to be far worse. As in the case of Susan and her fear of sharing the video, victims often believe they have consented and so won’t report the crime, or worse, fear they will be blamed.
In November 2013, I chaired a cross party inquiry into the effectiveness of UK legislation in tackling child sexual exploitation. The report, published in April 2014, made several recommendations that the Government subsequently adopted on how to improve the protection of children.
One major recommendation of the report was to change the law on grooming.
In common parlance, grooming is the process of inappropriate communication with a child, often sexual in nature, which is frequently the precursor to meeting a child for the purposes of abuse. An oddity in the original legislation meant that an adult arranging to meet a child for the purposes of sexual exploitation had to arrange this meeting on two occasions before it was deemed a crime - one time too many for child protection!
I recommended the law be changed and, after a long campaign, I was successful. The Government accepted my amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Act (2015) so that Police could intervene the first time an adult contacts a child with the intention of meeting them for sex. This change sent out a clear message to the general public that child sexual exploitation existed, and gave the necessary powers to the police to swiftly prevent it.
Another key recommendation of our report was the removal of the term ‘child prostitution’ from all legislation.
This is important as children should never be seen as prostitutes, they are victims.
No child is able to make an informed choice about selling their bodies for sex, the only language we should be using is that of exploitation and abuse.
The term ‘prostitution’ implies complicity on the part of the child. As it was a legal definition, it could be used in court to undermine the credibility of the victim, as well as humiliate them and ultimately, influence the jury’s opinion of the child’s claims.
My campaign to change the language was successful in 2015. The Serious Crime Act (2015) amended primary legislation to remove the term ‘child prostitution.’ It also amended the Street Offences Act (1959) to decriminalise under-18s who are being commercially sexually exploited on the streets. This is crucial as it recognises that children are always victims and are never consenting participants in selling sex.
Another key success was changing the way our judicial system treats victims and witnesses. Judges overseeing child sexual exploitation cases must now complete specific training – this ensures they deal with cases sensitively and give witnesses a fair hearing. The Government also agreed to provide updated guidance to the Crown Prosecution Service, so there is a shift from assessing the credibility of a child who has been abused, to assessing the credibility of the allegation they make.
In addition, after significant pressure, the Government has started to implement reforms aimed at standardising police responses to CSE cases, including a trial scheme which confers a licence upon selected officers who have exhibited the skillset, and undertaken the necessary training, to investigate child sex abuse claims.
We know from Rotherham that victims need to be taken seriously and supported, and a well-trained and empathetic police force is essential to this.
Perhaps the most important legal change was the criminalisation of coercive control, an act or pattern of acts, used to harm, punish, or frighten the victim into submission. This controlling behaviour is designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, and/or depriving them of their independence. This came into force in 2015 and has proven fundamental to shifting attitudes on the various forms of violence against women and girls.
When we talk about child sexual exploitation, it is exactly this; coercive control, girls forced to act against their will for fear of reprisals, or violence.
It is a key part of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and Council of Europe standards to end all kinds of sexual offences against children. I have been campaigning for the UK Government to ratify the Lanzarote Convention on the protection of children from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. This includes child sexual exploitation, grooming and offences related to child abuse material. In June of this year, they did ratify.
This is a vital step because it promotes legislation that obliges states to prosecute their own nationals for sex offences they have committed abroad. It also means that states must cooperate on investigating and prosecuting sex offenders.
I understand that South Korea also has extra-territorial jurisdiction provisions in place for sexual offences committed abroad, and would urge the government to ensure these are proactively enforced and perpetrators prosecuted.
The UK has Children’s Commissioners in each of its constituent nations. The Commissioner holds responsibility for promoting and protecting children’s rights under the UNCRC and other domestic human rights legislation. Introduced in 2005, the Children’s Commissioner acts as a national voice for children and makes recommendations to the Government on how to best promote children’s welfare. They work independently from the government, though are funded by them.
The advent of the internet has brought new risks to our children.
The increasing availability of technology means that people around the world can instantly connect through social media. Though this does not necessarily pose a threat to all users, it has opened up a largely unregulated space which is capable of enabling widespread abuse of vulnerable individuals; children and adults alike.
In the UK, the National Crime Agency said in just one week in December 2017, they safeguarded 245 children online and arrested 192 suspected offenders. The National Crime Agency and Police have said that offenders capitalise on vulnerabilities brought by the immediacy of live streaming.
Abusers send messages to literally hundreds of children at a time, hoping to lure one into a conversation. The grooming process then begins: flattery, dares, and online gifts – persuading and manipulating the child to perform sexual acts. Then the relationship takes a darker turn: threats to reveal images or videos to parents and friends and, most chillingly, meeting them to abuse them in person.
Children increasingly have unlimited access to these unrestricted online spaces-coupled with a lack of awareness and education of the dangers of social media/chat apps, leaving them vulnerable to online grooming. This is largely because the majority of parents grew-up in the pre-digital age and so are unaware of the risks their children face.
According to a 2017 survey, 72% of children in South Korea owned a smartphone by aged 11 or 12 spending approximately 5.4 hours a day on them. 60% of South Korean children under 9 are using smartphones. Although we are far less tech-savvy in the UK, this is a problem we share; for example, half of 9 to 16 year olds in the UK use smart phones every day.
I try to stress to parents that they would not let their child open the front door at home and have an intimate conversation with a stranger – but this is exactly what they are allowing if their children use smartphones.
According to a recent report, over 95% of all child sexual exploitation in South Korea was arranged online. Furthermore, 2018 National Police Agency statistics show that of the 5104 cases of child sexual abuse reported in the last 5 years, that’s 3 cases a day by the way, 94.1% of these cases involved children under the age of 13.
This fails to take into account those children aged 13 to 18 who have also been sexually abused, but who are instead framed as ‘prostitutes’, blamed and as a consequence, shamed.
I was recently appalled by the story of a 13 year old girl, who I will call X, who suffered learning disabilities.
It is impossible to argue that X had the ability to give informed consent due to her inherent vulnerabilities- both age and learning disabilities. She was sexually exploited by 6 adult males who intentionally contacted her through a chat application. However, rather than prosecuting the adults, the child was later found by the courts to be a ‘spontaneous sex seller’ because there had been no evidence of force from her abusers. It was alleged that she had willingly created her account on the chat application and had accepted food and the motel fee from the men.
This is not a case of ‘child prostitution’ or ‘compensated dating’, this is a textbook example of child sexual exploitation, and should be treated as such by the law and society as a whole.
We must acknowledge that children use the internet to source information. When this information concerns sex and sexuality, it brings an added risk if the child does not already have a basic knowledge to contextualise what they find online. One group particularly at risk of this threat in the UK are LGBT children.
A 2012 study by the University of Cambridge found that 1 in 4 young gay children don’t have an adult to talk to at school, home or anywhere, and that 1 in 3 are ignored and isolated by others at school. It is no surprise then that they go online to seek information and to connect with others. Sadly, the abusers are aware of this and exploit the situation.
I have been campaigning for the UK Government to take bold action to keep our children safe online. One element of this is robust age verification schemes to prevent children accidentally accessing adult material.
I am pleased to say that by the end of 2018, the UK Government intends to ensure that pornographic websites verify the age of anyone looking to go onto their site. The British Board of Film Classification, entrusted with holding websites to account, will ensure that adult websites perform ID checks on all visitors and will issue enforcement notices against offenders. Further to this, the Offensive Weapons Bill currently moving through Parliament, will make it an offence to sell weapons over the internet without first verifying the age of the buyer. Failure to do so would bring serious criminal penalties and sets a precedent when it comes to online exploitation.
Clearly it is possible for governments to legislate to protect children from accessing material they should not be viewing online, and to improve responses to cases of child sexual exploitation by the police, judiciary and other actors. But there is still more to be done.
For example, we must ensure children are unable to gain access to apps with an adult-purpose. In June 2018, the UK Government announced plans to bring forward specific legislation to tackle a range of online harms, from cyberbullying to online child sexual exploitation.
Working with children, parents, teachers and charities I developed the idea of Dare2Care, a series of policy recommendations and shared resources which seek to prevent child abuse and violence in teenagers’ relationships before it occurs. Launched in 2016, Dare2Care has greatly influenced the UK Government. Recently, the Government committed to bringing forward legislation to protect children from sexual exploitation online. Dare2Care also recommends compulsory Relationships Education in all primary schools, a commitment the Government is implementing in 2020. This will provide children with the skills they need to recognise patterns of abuse and stay safe in relationships. More than anything, Dare2Care recognises that early intervention is the only effective way to prevent children from coming to harm.
Legislative changes have proven important in reflecting the shifts in cultural attitudes towards victims of sexual exploitation. Police and judicial responses have been improved through increased funding, national exposure of the crimes, convictions and training for all professionals working with children.
Perpetrators of CSE often prey on the underlying vulnerabilities and powerlessness in their victims, in order to assert maximum control. Here today, we must recognise that in South Korea, more than 80% of children who have been deemed ‘child prostitutes’ are also runaways. The number of runaway or missing children who are forced into child sexual exploitation each year as a matter of survival is estimated at 100,000.
In order to truly combat child sexual exploitation, we must prevent these crisis situations from manifesting in the first place by reducing vulnerabilities. If we protect children on the cusp of running away from home, or intervene at school if we fear there may be familial problems or potential economic hardship, this intervention may break the cycle of abuse. In the UK we are also working tirelessly to bridge some of the gaps that society has created, and into which children in crisis often fall.
The additional complexity of consumerism in young people can also bring difficulties, leading, in the case of South Korea, to something I know you term ‘compensated dating’ (won-jo gyo-gee). The prevalence of this practice, as well as ‘conditional dating’ (jo-ge-on man-nam), has normalised sexual exploitation and the commodification of the female body on a mass scale.
87.9% of children who engaged in conditional dating received money in return, and 39.3% said they received items they desired. This should not be seen as evidence of a child giving informed consent, but as an indicator that the child is being sexually exploited.
84.4% of these children had runaway experiences.
Girls who engage in such activities are not ‘child prostitutes’ because they receive gifts, on the contrary, the gifts are evidence of their exploitation.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2012 highlighted the following concerns to South Korea, I quote: ‘drastic increase in sexual violence against children and the high rates of pornography consumption, low rates of prosecution for CSE, lack of victim rehabilitation and support (especially for boys and men), reduction in budget allocations for prevention strategies and victim support despite increasing rates of CSE.’
This has to change.
Let us now reflect on the existing laws in South Korea, all of which refer to international age, and not Korean age, calculations.
According to the Child Welfare Act, a child is described as a person under 18 years. However, this definition is not consistent across all legislation. The age of marriage is also 18 years, but children can get married earlier with parental or a guardian’s consent.
Of particular concern is the age of consent in Article 305 of the Criminal Act- which remains at 13 years.
This article is commonly used to defend CSE perpetrators, portraying young children between 13 and 18 years as consenting parties to sexual acts. I understand that a petition was lodged to increase this age from 13 to 16 years in 2012 but it is yet to be legislated. Raising the age of consent to 16 years would mirror the English law and is a pivotal prerequisite in better protecting children from sexual exploitation. By going one step further and increasing the age of consent to 18 years, this would eliminate any potential ambiguity between adulthood and consent.
The reluctance in South Korea to frame children as victims of sexual exploitation at all stages; from societal attitudes; police officers during the initial reporting stages and within the judiciary when it comes to enforcement, perpetuates the issue of under-reporting, leading to perpetrators not being brought to justice. Thus the cycle of abuse continues. This cycle must be broken by reviewing our rhetoric and choice of words and ensuring we treat all children through the lens of victimhood, instead of blaming and shaming.
As South Korea increasingly takes a greater role on the world stage, it is vital that your domestic law complies with international legal obligations, in line with Article 6(1) of your Constitution, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), ratified in 1991, and the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography (2000), ratified in 2004.
According to the UNCRC, Article 34, I quote; ‘States should protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse.’
The Korean Communications Standards Commission regulates the applications and online spaces where sex-trafficking and online grooming are facilitated. I commend the NGO ‘Stand Up Against Sex Trafficking of Minors’, for continuously lobbying the government to shut down some of these applications to ensure that online spaces are safer for children, regrettably to no avail.
It is my understanding that often these apps are not classified as harmful unless there is clear evidence in the title of the chatroom pertaining to sexual intercourse; meaning most slip through the gaps.
In the UK, we have recognised the need to regulate these applications and websites, and to hold them to account for enabling child sexual exploitation, though I admit the process is painfully slow.
Although the Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family are committed to supporting child sex-trafficking victims, the lack of an exclusive governmental body to combat CSE has led to policy fragmentation.
With no long-term strategy and cohesion, this will inevitably lead to no responsibility or accountability, and therefore limited progress.
I would reinforce the recommendations of the UNCRC Committee to create a children’s rights sub-committee within the National Human Rights Commission, as well as to evaluate the success of the Children’s Rights Ombudspersons.
One way in which inherent vulnerabilities of many children in South Korea can be detected and remedied is through education and awareness-raising. Through teaching children the potential dangers of online grooming and CSE, as well as tackling any mental health problems associated with the education system, peer pressure or bullying in schools; we are better-placed to support vulnerable children.
In 2012, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child laid down their recommendations and observations, having examined the reports submitted by South Korea.
The Committee has stressed the urgent need for sex and relationships education programmes in the school curricula in order to better understand consent and decrease the number of unplanned pregnancies in young girls.
Where bullying, harassment and violence begin in schools as a result of competitive education systems, this often permeates beyond the school environment, and normalises exploitation further afield. Though some schools may indeed be a source of the problem, they are also often the answer; providing a platform to educate children on safe relationships, the dangers of online grooming, how to confront peer pressure and bullying etc.
I hope that South Korea will follow the UK’s example and prioritise compulsory Relationships and Sex Education in schools, in order to prevent abuse, as well as provide better training for teachers and parents on supporting young people to not only strive for success, but also to be safe, secure and happy.
Scholars have long argued that delayed social awareness of child abuse in all its forms in South Korea can largely be attributed to traditional Confucian teachings. With child-rearing traditionally confined to the private sphere, beyond the control of the state, this leaves the government unaware of underlying situations, until they become fully-fledged crises - at which point the government is unprepared.
It has been argued in Korea that ‘law cannot jump over the family fence’, but there should be no space exempt from legal regulation.
There is no better justification for intervention than the protection of the next generation and the best interests of these children.
In the UK, around 90% of all child abuse occurs within the extended family, I do not doubt that similar statistics can be found in Korea.
Ultimately, we should not speak of barriers or fences - there is no fence too high that I personally won’t jump in order to protect some of our most vulnerable members of society.
I’ve jumped a fair few in the UK.
In closing, I implore you to make the necessary changes to both law and societal attitudes in order to shift from victim blaming and shaming in cases of CSE, to survivor support as a matter of urgency.