The idea of adolescents working in the sex industry is not socially or politically palatable. In fact, under international law, prostitution is considered to be a form of severe exploitation for any individual under the age of 18 and constitutes one definition of child trafficking that does not necessitate the use of force, deception or coercion. There is widespread agreement that children should not participate in any form of sex work. As a result, older adolescents, those aged 16 and 17 who undertake sex work, usually fall into a policy black hole in which they lack access to much-needed services. This can be further compounded by instances in which an individual may work in an illegal industry (where sex work is illegal) and/or commit employment offenses (due to migration or age).
In many countries, these minors are perceived to have reached a level of developmental maturity; enabling employment in most industries. The International Labor Organization, for example, outlines age restrictions for employment; the basic minimum age for work is 15 (in line with the completion of compulsory education), while hazardous work (all forms of work) is restricted to anyone over 18. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) (Article 1) acknowledges the “evolving capacities” of children as they age. In other words, a child’s capacity to formulate and express opinions is not static, but evolves with age, maturity and experience. In this respect, the ability of a six year old to make a decision, say, about which parent they wish to live with, in the case of divorce, is considered more limited than that of a fifteen year old. Regarding prostitution: we are not implying that minors should participate in sex work, but rather that the practical implications regarding those capacities relative to age should be taken into account when dealing the reality of underage sex workers; policymaking demands a balance between “the best interests of the child” as set out in Article 3 of the CRC and an individual’s capacity to both enter into and exit out of the sex trade. As Mike Dottridge and Ann Jordan explain,
No one is willing to acknowledge the reality that many older adolescents (who are considered “children” under international law) are regarded as adults in their own communities, are not controlled or supported by their families, and are able to make their own decisions. They may even be married, have children and live in their own house. So, while no one interferes with these aspects of their lives, international law dictates that these adolescents must be pulled out of prostitution. At the same time, communities and governments offer no or very poor solutions that would, at a minimum, reduce the harm and, in the best situation, would provide adolescents with skills and means to exit the sex sector. International law says get out, but the adolescents ask, where do I go? Neither international law nor governments have developed a solution to date and so many adolescents continue earning their living by selling sex, usually under unsafe conditions and often on the streets.
The lack of political and social will to engage with the issue of adolescent sex workers ultimately results in inadequate protection and prevention of exploitation. Moreover, principles enshrined in the CRC, such as evolving capacities, may present challenges in targeting prevention and policy implementation efforts in human trafficking, particularly as they stand in contrast to the Palermo Protocol, which makes a hard line legal distinction in sex trafficking based on age, not capacity.
One recent area of advocacy has focused on the perception of age. To combat oft-cited defenses, such as recent cases in Singapore, that one is unable to evaluate the age of a girl prior to sex, policies place the onus of age verification on sex purchasers. This responsibility has extended to campaigns against advertisers of sex, such as Craigslist; companies which allow(ed) pictures of young looking women (we’ve heard no complaints about young looking men, incidentally) in online advertising for adult services. Unfortunately, these advocacy efforts in the U.S. tend to be supported by methodologically questionable research, such as that conducted by the Schapiro Group (a consulting firm in the US) on behalf of the Women’s Funding Network. The “statistics” derived from the study were touted widely by media and NGOs and successfully contributed to changes made in advertising by Craigslist. The method used to estimate minors in prostitution involved counting “pictures of young-looking women on online classified sites” [emphasis added]. As Laura Agustin points out, “workers commonly try to look younger than they are (to attract clients).” Research like this does a disservice to anti-trafficking research broadly through inaccuracy and misappropriated trust in quick numerical tallies; not to mention the impact on research funding and resultant haphazard policymaking.
Missing from those efforts to address “demand” is a much-needed dialogue on extending protections to vulnerable groups susceptible to trafficking and exploitation, as well as those already in the sex industry. For instance, instead of being afforded rights as minors protected under international law, adolescent sex workers are often criminalized alongside adults for labor or immigration offenses. In Singapore, for instance, foreign underage sex workers may be inhibited from accessing support available to adult sex workers in part because they know that their migration status and age means they are working illegally. However, the criminalization of young people as sex workers surely increases their vulnerability to violence, sexual health crises and exploitation. Policies constructed on the premise of age should take into account the impact those policies may have on a) criminalizing children themselves and b) any incentives by minors to report crimes.
Locally, there is noticeable silence on the issue of child sexual exploitation within the context of trafficking – both within the NGO sector and by Government. As far as we know, there has been no substantive action taken after the publication of a seminal report on child trafficking by EPCAT and Dr Sallie Yea in 2011; revealing that child sexual exploitation was a feature of life in Singapore and this exploitation was taking place in Singapore by and of Singaporeans. Despite a stated interest by the Singapore anti-trafficking Taskforce in operationalizing the Palermo Protocol, which defines the commercial sexual exploitation of minors as trafficking, there is no reference to trafficking or exploitation in any of the recent cases of underage prostitution.
We are also not aware of a children’s representative on the Taskforce; an area of specialist expertise which could not only address the needs of underage sex workers, but all minors involved in trafficking and exploitative situations. As we argued in our response to the National Plan of Action, trafficked minors have needs that differ from adult victims, including identification procedures (interviewing techniques), risk assessments and specialized service provision. According to the 2012 TIP Report, the Singapore government,
[…]provided funding to 24 “children’s homes” and dormitories that could be used to house child trafficking victims and four shelters serving adults; however, it did not operate any trafficking -specific shelters. The government reported allocating the equivalent of $1.6 million to shelter and social services for crime victims during the year but did not dedicate exclusive resources to protecting trafficking victims.
Acknowledging the existence of older teens in the sex trade and tailoring services accordingly should mitigate risk and increasing protections, and possibly (permanent) exit. In combating the discrepancy between treating a child as a victim or a criminal, states should consider amendments to local policy. For example, in the U.S., safe harbor laws grant minors immunity from prosecution for prostitution offenses committed under the age of 18, as they are considered sexually exploited children. The laws recognize children as victims and enable various forms of protection and access to service provision.
There is also a necessity to continue developing a knowledge base regarding the relationship between minors, sex work and issues of poverty (often, homelessness), inequality, and (lack of) access to education. For instance, media reports indicate the negative impact of the economic crisis on child prostitution; not to mention the impact on those programs that support prevention efforts. According to the above Reuters article “Ruchira Gupta, founder of Indian charity Apne Aap Women Worldwide that works with prostitutes in 10 red light districts, said cuts in funding to women’s projects had reduced the options open to women and girls other than prostitution”. In other words, constrained economic opportunities restrict choice and/or (as the argument goes) force women and girls into prostitution when a lack of support is available; these conclusions warrant additional robust research on the impacts of the economic crisis on commercial sexual exploitation.
The grey areas explored above are arguably considered far less by activists, service providers and Government, but the policy implications are serious for affected adolescents. Addressing these complicated issues regarding minors in the sex trade often raises questions: how can we most effectively intervene and protect children? Equally, how can the provision of protection be balanced by political concerns about facilitating and condoning child prostitution, and potentially undermining protections afforded to children under local and international law?
The Singapore government recently closed a tender process launched with the stated purpose to “encourage more public education initiatives that would help public awareness of TIP [Trafficking in Persons] crimes, so that more of such incidents will be detected early and reported to the authorities.” As we’ve previously critiqued, misguided campaigns focused on educating the public on “human trafficking” broadly, focus heavily on stereotyped images of young girl children. Given that a) as far as we are aware, no current or forthcoming proposed work concerns the interests of minors in any form of trafficking and b) the impact of existing efforts globally largely remain unassessed, we can only hope that any subsequent public education efforts carefully consider incorporating a nuanced approach to the issues affecting minors who may be trafficking victims. We also hope those efforts consider evaluating the impact of those messages on the intended audience, particularly any which include young people themselves.