Text Box: Fighting Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Europe

Fighting Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

in Europe

Key points

·         Scientific researchers estimate that around one in ten people in Europe suffer some form of sexual abuse during their childhood.

·           To prevent sexual offences against children, prosecute the perpetrators and  protect the victims, the Council of Europe has adopted the Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse, which was opened for signature in 2007.


There are many forms of sexual exploitation and abuse, including incest, pornography, prostitution, trafficking and peer sexual violence. All of these can and do cause serious damage to children’s mental and physical health, and the consequences follow children into their adult lives.

Scientific studies carried out in the last decades estimate that 10% to 20% of people in Europe are sexually assaulted during their childhood (Child sexual abuse in Europe, Council of Europe Publishing, 2003).

According to Unicef, approximately two million children are exploited by the sex industry each year. There are estimated to be more than one million child abuse images posted on the Internet.

Child sexual abuse was a taboo subject until about ten years ago. Very little research had been done before on its extent and frequency. Since then, research has shed new light on the issue and shown that children are not most in danger from the predatory paedophile – or the lurking stranger with the sweeties – as was and still is commonly believed.

Most children know their abusers. They belong to the child’s family circle: relatives, family friends or carers. According to the experts, reported cases are just the tip of the iceberg, as many victims remain silent during their childhood and believe it is too late to speak out by the time they become adults or feel ready to denounce their abuser.

Child sex tourism is a practice that has spread in the last decades due to the development of the tourist industry.  It is the commercial sexual exploitation of children by persons who travel from one place to another, usually from a richer country to one that is less developed, where they engage in sexual acts with children.

Travellers may rationalise their sexual exploitation of children by adopting the handy assumption that sex with a child is culturally acceptable in the place they are visiting. This assumption is reinforced where law enforcement authorities fail to punish crimes against children or where it is common knowledge that legal action may be avoided through bribery. While child prostitution may be illegal, officials often seem to turn a blind eye to it when foreigners and the wealthy are involved.

Circumstances surrounding child sex tourism have come to light thanks to the work of NGOs such as End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT). Responsible travel companies and tour operators have reacted by making travellers aware that these are serious criminal offences and violations of children’s rights, and can lead to prosecution. However, some child abusers can and do benefit from legal loopholes or laxness on the part of the authorities in the country they are visiting and manage to return home safe from prosecution. 

The success of the Internet is creating more opportunities for those who intend to sexually exploit or abuse children. They take advantage of the potential outreach of the new technologies, exploit the weakness of a system with low content-control and manage to enter into contact with children – through chats or online social networks, for example.

For many years, the Council of Europe has been working to fight sexual violence against children through legal, political and educational measures. In 2001, the Council of Europe adopted the Convention on Cybercrime, which criminalises child pornography on the Internet. In 2007, the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse was opened for signature. It takes a holistic approach to the problem and aims to become an effective tool for the prevention of sexual offences against children, the prosecution of perpetrators and the protection of child victims.

Questions and Answers

How does the convention prevent sexual exploitation and abuse?

It identifies measures to prevent exploitation and abuse – such as training and awareness-raising for people working with children, and class work for children in primary and secondary schools to teach them how to protect themselves. It encourages co-operation with the business community, such as Internet service providers and travel companies, to discourage potential criminals and inform and alert potential victims. It also provides for services and preventive intervention programmes aimed at potential abusers.

How does it protect the victims?

It contains measures and services to protect the victims and their families, such as setting up telephone or Internet help lines, and psychological, medical and legal assistance for victims. It also sets up child-friendly judicial proceedings for protecting the victim’s safety, privacy, identity and image, as well as measures for limiting the number of interviews and taking into account the child’s needs and rights.

What kind of measures does it contain for prosecuting offenders?

It contains criminal law measures essential to combat sexual violence effectively:

§  ensuring that certain types of conduct are criminal offences, including:

·         sexual abuse: all cases where a person engages in sexual activities with a child below the age of consent;

·         all cases where a person engages in sexual activities with a child by using force or threats;

·         child prostitution;

·         child pornography;

·         corruption of children;

·         and solicitation of children for sexual purposes, including Internet grooming;

§  establishing common criteria to ensure that an effective, proportionate and dissuasive punitive system is put in place in all countries;

§  collecting and storing data on convicted offenders;

§  eliminating legal loopholes that benefit offenders, such as allowing extraterritoriality in the prosecution of child abusers. Extraterritoriality means that a country can prosecute its citizens for a crime committed abroad. For example, this makes it possible to prosecute sex tourists in Thailand when they return to their home country, outside the Thai legal jurisdiction.

The first country to adopt this type of measure was Germany, which changed its criminal code in September 1993 to make it possible to prosecute German citizens for crimes committed abroad. Many other countries followed suit, and the Council of Europe is now urging all its 47 members to enact such laws in accordance with the convention.

  • extending the limitation period. The limitation period is a time limit for legal action. The convention requests countries to extend their statute of limitation on sexual offences against children so that proceedings may be initiated after the victim has reached the adult legal age. 

What is the difference between sexual exploitation and sexual abuse?

Sexual abuse means having sexual activities with a child below the age of consent or where use is made of force or threats, abuse is made of a position of trust or authority over the child, such as in the family setting, or where the child’s particular vulnerability is take advantage of, for example, a mental or physical disability. Sexual exploitation includes the use of a child in prostitution, pornography or pornographic performances. One thing is certain though – sexual abuse and exploitation are much more widespread than is generally believed.

How can international co-operation help to fight against sexual violence?

Legal co-operation helps countries identify and analyse problems, find and apply common solutions, share data and expertise, combat impunity and improve prevention and protection measures. It is therefore essential that both European and non-European countries become parties to the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse. In March 2009, Greece became the first country to ratify the convention, which will enter into force when five states have ratified it.

Two other Council of Europe conventions are of particular relevance to the sexual abuse and exploitation of children:

·         The Council of Europe’s Convention on Cybercrime was the first international treaty to tackle the issue of crime on the Internet, and it includes an article on child pornography. It was opened for signature in 2001 and is now in force in 26 countries, including the United States. It makes producing, offering, distributing, procuring or possessing child abuse images through a computer system a criminal offence and provides means for police to work together internationally to combat these criminal activities.

·         The 2005 Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings recognises that all forms of trafficking in human beings are a violation of human rights and requires states to protect its victims, whether men, women or children. It applies to all forms of exploitation whether sexual, forced labour or services. Specific provisions take into account the vulnerability of children and their need for special protection and assistance. It has been ratified by 25 countries.

Using international co-operation, the Council of Europe programme “Building a Europe for and with children” seeks to promote children’s rights and eradicate all kinds of violence against children through legal and policy measures, as well as through education, training and awareness-raising campaigns.

More information: www.coe.int/childprotection and www.coe.int/children


Estelle Steiner, Press officer

Tel. +33 (0)3 88 41 33 35

Mobile +33 (0)6 08 46 01 57

[email protected]

Updated: August 2009