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Sexual exploitation of children

Zero tolerance for sexual exploitation of child performers

17 May 2024

A child, whose face is hidden by a script he holds in his hands, during a theatre rehearsal. © Getty Images

“A significant number of cases of sexual abuse and or exploitation of children within the [entertainment] industry remain under-reported, primarily due to the prevailing power dynamics, fear of retaliation and loss of opportunities, including threats to careers or personal safety, insecurity, intimidation, discrimination, stigmatisation and secondary victimization,” said Mama Fatima Singhateh, UN Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children.

For Singhateh, child sexual abuse is a widespread and pervasive issue that cuts across various facets of the industry, the expert said, including film, television, music, theatre, modelling, tourism, sports and hospitality, and community facilities.

In recent decades, the digital space, particularly social media and gaming platforms have become central to children’s leisure and entertainment, but also professionalized by the advent of children influencers and children esports players. These spaces have also been misused by adults who seek and connect with children to groom them for sexual exploitation and abuse, as described by UNICEF in 2020 guide for the gaming industry.

In her report to the Human Rights Council, where she explored the plethora of risks of sexual exploitation and abuse child performers are exposed to, Singhateh also highlighted the nexus between trafficking channels operating under the guise of the entertainment industry and new technologies that have emerged as novel pathways to exploit children.

Although obtaining data on the sexual exploitation of children in entertainment is difficult, the expert pointed to a survey led by the International Labour Organization in 2020 that revealed that 53.7 percent of respondents working in the industry had experienced sexual harassment during rehearsals and 46.3 percent had experienced incidents during auditions or interviews.

“Whether by physical presence or through digital platforms, perpetrators continue to exploit the vulnerability of children to coerce them into inappropriate situations, demand sexual favours, be made to work long hours with irregular schedules, or be exposed to dangerous conditions, in exchange for opportunities in the industry,” Singhateh said.

The hegemonic power of masculine corporate culture is one of the most dominant problems and has serious ramifications for violence and abuse.

Mama Fatima Singhateh, UN expert on the sale and sexual exploitation of children

She also highlighted several recent high-profile cases that have sparked broader discussions on “the limits of acceptable social norms and values.” However, an omerta remains she said.

“Victims and survivors have been met with silence, their experience unacknowledged,” Singhateh added. “In some instances, their cases have not been investigated. Victims and survivors have also faced threats and intimidation and have found that reparation measures were not available.”

She further pointed out that perpetrators who engage in predatory behaviour often wield positions of power or influence over their child victims and survivors and exploit theirs and their families’ vulnerabilities and aspirations. Thus, such behaviour has been accepted as the norm in the industry because directors, producers, managers and agents haven’t faced repercussions.

“Patterns of domination, inequalities within communities and the normalization of abuse and violence are the latent realities that place children and adolescents at a constant risk of sexual exploitation anywhere that they work in the entertainment industry,” the expert said.

In her report, Singhateh stressed the necessity of creating safe spaces where child victims and survivors would feel empowered to speak up and seek justice and reparations against their abusers. She identified pathways for mitigating further risks of sexual exploitation and abuse of child performers and made recommendations to States and other stakeholders for protecting them.

The measures that could adequately address the issue of child sexual exploitation and abuse in the entertainment industry include “formulating or strengthening and implementing legislative frameworks, polices and guidelines; establishing partnerships with business owners to foster child-safe business models; raising awareness and national capacity-building on this problem; establishing reporting, protective, oversight and accountability measures; ensuring technical safeguards for online spaces; and fostering multistakeholder collaboration.”