Thursday, 18th March 2021

Today, on National Child Exploitation Awareness Day, ECPAT UK's CEO Patricia Durr blogs about the need to ensure children's voices are heard and their rights are respected if we are to protect them from exploitation and harm.

A hand with the words "listen, understand, act. #CEADay21" written on itToday is National Child Exploitation Awareness Day across the UK. Launched by our friends at the National Working Group, it is a day which aims to raise awareness of child exploitation and encourage us all to do whatever we can to speak out against abuse and to stop abuse and exploitation.

It is also a day to reflect on how far we have come in our understanding and awareness of child abuse and exploitation, and how much further we need to go as children and young people continue to be abused and exploited. The UK Government’s recently published Child Sexual Abuse Strategy acknowledges this and today we welcome the launch of the Stop Abuse Together campaign too.

Our work at ECPAT UK is driven by children’s rights as enshrined in the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), the international human rights treaty which sets out the rights every child has - rights to protection from abuse, to the provision of services and support to them and to participation in everything that affects them.

Children’s rights have been affected hugely by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is not yet clear what the full impact will be, but we know that child criminal exploitation in drug supply has not stopped and organised criminal groups have adapted their operations to capitalise on reduced services and support. It has also meant increased risks to all children, particularly in relation to child sexual exploitation online, as children spend more time inside using technology.

Additionally, the Home Office has today released its official statistics on the number of people referred into the National Referral Mechanism in 2020, showing that more children than ever were identified as potential victims of trafficking and modern slavery last year. By contrast, the safeguarding response to child victims remains under-resourced and inconsistent.

Over the past year, we have also highlighted child victims’ increased isolation and vulnerability to going missing and being re-trafficked, problems with support for their basic needs and the scarce support available for dealing with serious mental health issues that were all exacerbated by ‘lockdown’ and social restrictions.

Last year we raised concerns with the Children’s Commissioner for England about the disproportionate impact of the government’s response to Covid-19on child victims of trafficking, looked after children and young people seeking asylum. 

We were delighted this week that the incoming Children's Commissioner for England, Rachel de Souza, plans to conduct 'a Beveridge-style review of childhood' in the wake of the pandemic and to ask children and young people directly through the Big Ask about their lives and experiences, their dreams and ambitions and the things that are holding them back.

We welcome the ambition to put children at the heart of economic recovery and to see childhood right at the top of the government agenda. We will certainly be encouraging our youth support groups and our youth advisory group to get involved, and we’ll be inviting the Commissioner to meet with them to ensure the voices of child victims of trafficking and exploitation are heard. It is only by listening that we can learn and understand, and only through understanding that we can act well together.

We remain committed to defending and progressing children’s rights as the best protection against exploitation and abuse – a commitment that was boosted this week with news of the incorporation of the UNCRC into domestic law in Scotland – something that has been called for across the UK since its ratification in 1991. Incorporation requires governments to run the country in a way that respects children’s rights – including how they make decisions about spending – what a huge difference that would make to how we act.