To tackle commercial sexual exploitation of children, we need to nab customers too

Discourse around commercial sexual exploitation of children is focused on survivors while there’s no information on the trafficker or the customers.
To tackle commercial sexual exploitation of children, we need to nab customers too
To tackle commercial sexual exploitation of children, we need to nab customers too
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When you read about commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEoC) in the media, it is mostly about the number of children who have been rescued from a certain place. At the most, it is about the people running the racket – the brothel owners/managers and pimps.

However, what’s missing from both, media reports and law enforcement’s approach to CSEoC, are the customers who actually buy sex with minors.

At a workshop on CSEoC organised by The News Minute, and Change Mantras on March 20, 2018, domain experts pointed out how the discourse around the issue is focused on survivors and there’s no visibility on the trafficker (if the sexually exploited children had been trafficked) or the customers.

And this after a law which criminalises sex with minors was put in place in 2012 – Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses (POCSO) Act.

Lack of will and resources to use POCSO

Roop Sen of Change Mantras is also a founding member of the NGO Sanjog, and researches trafficking and migration. He pointed out at the workshop that the demand aspect of CSEoC needs to be paid attention to, by the social sector and law enforcement alike.

When asked why the police does not use POCSO, which clearly indicts people who have sex with minors, Roop says that one of the reasons is that people do not see it as a law that can be applied to commercial sexual exploitation, but only to sexual abuse of children.

“There was no discussion on the fact that POCSO could also be used to penalise customers,” he says.

Furthermore, when high level officials were asked about this in the course of Roop’s research on CSEoC, they said that they needed more resources in order to implement POCSO to penalise customers.

“One issue could be manpower and money. Ideally, Anti-human trafficking units (AHTUs) should be the specialised agencies looking into this, but their de facto function is related to rescues. You need to redefine terms of rescue,” Roop explains.

Further, in Karnataka especially, there does not seem to be a lack of funds as such. What is lacking, however, is the prioritisation of allocating them towards CSEoC investigation and training.

“Consensus (over using funds) then becomes a matter of agreement between the state government, home minister and the police. Prioritisation becomes important,” Roop says.

However, given that the media also does not present the enormity of the situation, the consensus does not arise.

Not all customers of sex should be prosecuted

Roop says that there is consensus among law enforcement as well as the social sector that customers of child sex workers should be prosecuted. The law is also categorical about this.

However, there are differences of opinion when it comes to customers of adult sex workers.

“It would be simplistic to say that if no one would want to buy sex there would be no trafficking for sex work. At the end of the day, we are also concerned that the government and courts should not impinge upon an individual’s right to sexuality,” Roop argues, referring to adults who enter sex work consensually.

It would be problematic then to suggest that all customers of sex work should be penalised, especially those who purchase sex from consenting adult sex workers.

Further, from a criminal justice point of view, the police question whether apprehending customers would really help them tackle organised crime or trafficking.

“As a researcher, I can tell you that vis-à-vis adult sex workers and customers’ penalisation, there is no agreement among various stakeholders. However, customers of minor sex workers should be penalised – this everyone agrees on. For children, the mandate is clear; it needs political endorsement,” Roop says.

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