#VOC – a manifesto for the future of every child

Scanning the Guardian recently I read the horrific story of three Filipino sisters who were being sexually exploited by their mother on a live webcam in their bedroom.

It reminded me of the dreadful tales I used to unearth as a journalist in Southeast Asia:

  • Cambodian parents selling their children to Taiwanese child traffickers who used them as sex slaves in their newly built luxury villas.
  • Vietnamese street children spirited away to seedy coastal resorts such as Vung Tau to perform sex acts on tourists (Gary Glitter was tracked down by an intrepid reporter friend of mine in Vung Tau – well done Simon Parry).
  • Filipino girls kidnapped by rich yachting tourists at Puerto Galera and forced to perform sex acts on the crew while sailing round the South China Sea.

I recall once having lunch with a New Zealand businessman in Hong Kong – he was setting up a business in Indochina. Half way through the meal and with no prompting whatsoever, he suddenly digressed and in a hushed tone told me that Cambodian toddlers were happy to carry out various sex acts, that all expats were at it in Phnom Penh (even allegedly the Australian ambassador – who was later, unaccountably, recalled to Canberra).

His graphic details of debauched sojourns to the sex dens of the Cambodian capital prompted me to stand up hastily and inform him loudly across the restaurant that he was a truly sick individual, before making my exit.

That was in the 1990s and sadly, in hindsight, the world seemed so much less sophisticated back then…these days it’s so much worse.

Children around the world are exploited online, through pictures, videos and, more recently, through live streaming. The UN believes the child pornography live streaming industry is worth around £1 billion annually. The people responsible for these crimes exist in specially encrypted sites on the dark web. Ugly shadows, existing in a parallel nightmare web.

Just last week expat English teacher Richard Huckle was given multiple life sentences for sex crimes against Malaysian children, which he boasted about on the dark web.

The US Center for missing children claims it has received more than 5.4 million reports of child sexual exploitation in the past 18 years.

Agencies around the world are attempting to fight this avalanche of crime. For example, the UK, US and EU commission have formalised a merger between WeProtect and the Global Alliance Against child sexual exploitation. Meanwhile, the Virtual Global TaskForce has been established to combat online child sex abuse.

But as the Guardian article points out, in developing countries the problem is directly linked to poverty and with the availability of fast Internet speeds and cheap webcams, whole communities can now earn money by forcing children to perform sex acts to live paying audiences.

Rachel Maloney, a children’s social worker working with SharedVision to deliver the #VOC programme, is eloquent on the subject. She highlights the emerging problem that older children are often now instigating the online abuse as a way out of poverty. So the issue is complex and multi-layered with children and young people taking the initiative and forcing the hands of parents.

Rachel says what is needed is far more understanding and empathy by professionals, while also stepping up attempts to capture the voices of these children and young people wherever they are in the world. They need to be heard as individuals regardless of which continent they live on. Only then can we help to change their lives and the system that perpetuates the crimes against them.

“The demand for live streaming indecent images is increasing globally, made easier by the rapid use of new technologies,” she says. “The rise in domestic and overseas human child trafficking is linked and should not be compartmentalised.

“Uncomfortable conversations need to be had about how this is not a ‘lifestyle choice,’ these children feel there is no choice. We can view the parent as ‘failing to protect, being an active participant’, or put resources into creating an alternative choice of strong, effective focus on child protection, income generation from other sources, education and awareness raising.

“The emotional social cost of ignoring this on a UK level with a ‘not our problem’ response is naive and irresponsible. This keeps the scale of the issue for children overseas and in the UK hidden, silent – and let’s name the uncomfortable link that a proportion of these children will be the next generation of abusers, traffickers.

“Peer-on-peer abuse, grooming by young people of other young people, the loaded difference between a child being seen as sexually exploited, and a child exhibiting sexually harmful behaviour, often in my experience are the same children. Yet we as a society like to have nice clearly defined lines of moral judgement.

“We are in a situation of politically perpetuating the silence to retain the status quo; so no headlines of children’s horrific trafficking experiences both of domestic and overseas children; no front page news of children being used to transport and supply drugs.

“We need to be raising awareness with professions, investing in identifying the skilled perpetrators, we need to get our young people talking, giving them alternatives, somewhere they feel safe, giving them a sense of belonging and hope. Fundamentally, a child is a child regardless of where they originate from – and all have a right to be protected.”

Marisa de Jager, children’s social worker and architect of SharedVision’s “Voice of the Child” (#VOC) campaign, is passionate about giving children and young people the chance to speak up, to be heard. Before moving to the UK, Marisa worked in her native South Africa as a social worker in some of the most trying circumstances imaginable.

She says: “It is well known worldwide that South Africa has been marked by high levels of violence and exploitation of children in places where they should be and feel safe.
“South Africa is Africa’s biggest economy, and yet poverty remains high and unemployment nearly matches the poverty rate. This is partly due to the AIDS crisis and partly due to an exceptionally high murder rate. Rape is common, and has become a particular problem among adolescents.

“It is reported that 3.9 million South African children are now deemed to be orphans. Just under two thirds of these children have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS, and hundreds of thousands suffer from the disease themselves.

“The widespread effects of HIV have resulted in more than 80,000 children living in households headed by a child. The desperate financial constraints resulting from this mean that many children cannot afford to go to school. Instead, they must work to feed their siblings, or simply to survive. HIV/AIDS and huge social inequality has led to an ongoing cycle of poverty which is transferred across generations.

“No child under the age of 5 should die from a preventable disease and all children deserve long-term good health. All children should thrive in a safe environment and deserve a childhood.”

Marisa explains why the #VOC campaign is so important to her and for Shared Vision: “Shared Vision is campaigning for a strengthened child-rights system informed by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989.

“Article 12 – the provision that children have a right to express their views and have them taken seriously in accordance with their age and maturity – has proved one of the most challenging to implement.

“Although the understanding of childhood and attitudes towards children differs widely across cultures, the experience is that the voice of the child is being excluded from matters that affect them today and will in future.

“Time and again, experience shows that children – even very young children – given the time and opportunity, demonstrate they have views, experiences and perspectives to express and can contribute positively to decisions that affect the realisation of their rights and wellbeing.

“Article 12 is important as a fundamental right: it is a measure of our human dignity that we are able to be involved in decisions that affect us, consistent with our levels of competence. It is also a means through which other rights are realised. It is not possible to claim rights without a voice.

Marisa believes that children who are silenced cannot challenge violence and abuse perpetrated against them. The capacity to learn is restricted without the chance to question, challenge and debate. She says policy-makers cannot identify the barriers to fulfilling children’s rights if they do not hear from children about the existence and nature of those barriers.

“And the right to be heard applies to every aspect of a child’s life – at home, in school, in healthcare, in play and leisure, in the media, in the courts, in local communities, and in local and national policy-making, as well as at the international level.

“Shared Vision promotes new ways of giving children a voice and encourages meaningful participation in practice. We aim to draw together experiences from around the world to learn and broaden understanding of the scope and meaning of Article 12.”

Nigel Boulton, a former senior detective and the architect behind MASH (multi agency safeguarding hub), has written what amounts to a manifesto for the #VOC campaign.

“The programe

  • enables direct individual service delivery to children and families to be designed, shaped and evolved to fit needs in a dynamic way – so workers supporting or intervening need to have #VOC to understand what is working what is not, what is desired and what is not…
  • enables service designers and commissioners to ensure commissioned services are appropriate and able to deliver requirements. So health, social care, charity and voluntary services should all have #VOC within their construct and writ large through their service specification
  • #VOC in another way should ensure that already commissioned services are reviewed as to whether they are still appropriate to the spec required and if not amended or actually cancelled and/or replaced
  • #VOC enables a way to gain access to the most vulnerable in society and promote their views on life. It can be specific to a group or culture by the way it seeks the voice, ie, in gangs and gamification. It can shape diversion and prevention strategies based on knowledge of those who are not seeking a service, but society needs to engage with and maybe alter/affect behaviours
  • #VOC should not focus only on victims, it has a very strong place within cohorts of children who are suspects, offenders or those being rehabilitated into society after incarceration. All children regardless of their behaviours deserve the right to a voice so #VOC needs to gain access to all areas of the 0 to 25 age group
  • #VOC needs to be shaped to different audiences to ensure all have the opportunity to be heard – Generation Y and Z are very different
  • #VOC is service user designed. It needs the input of children and young people to be effective.

“These outcomes are hugely business and financially focused. There is nothing wrong in this. Society expects services to be delivered effectively and efficiently. It is nearly all public money. #VOC has a massive part to play in all commissioning and service design. So strategic policy at local regional and national level also need #VOC input.”

Marisa concludes: “We need to make wholesale changes through #VOC to ensure the future for children and young people is brighter, safer, happier – and free from the crimes that blight the lives of the current Gen Z generation.

“#VOC becomes alive when we know extraordinary things happen for children. When we listen, engage, empower and embrace all about them. When we advocate for and on behalf of them.

“Because we invest in them they become the role models for one another generation and leaders in their communities. They help to break the cycle and help others lost in a fractured system. But, above all, they become the transformation into a cycle of change.”

Andrew Chilvers was talking to Nigel Boulton, Marisa De Jager and Rachel Maloney. If you want to get involved in helping the #VOC campaign, please email Marisa: marisa@nibsharedvision.uk