A research team on commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) and child sexual abuse (CSA) in Fiji has compiled a report that reveals the extent of sexual exploitation in the country with reports of the abuse of women and children and the factors that are enabling this disturbing trend.

The issue of sexual exploitation is an extremely important one for the region as it occurs throughout and it is common knowledge and people, especially children, are extremely vulnerable to it. That is why this report, though it is focused on Fiji, is still applicable to the whole region because we share the factors that contribute to this all too important issue.

As reported by the Fiji Times Online, 'an overwhelming majority of young female sex workers interviewed at five centres around the country indicated the lack of access to education and employment opportunities as significant push factors into the world of prostitution' while 'others gave reasons such as abuse experienced at home, lack of support from either immediate or extended family members, peer pressure and lack of parental supervision'.

'The report said this revelation minimised the myth that only children from poor socio-economic backgrounds were vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation'.
'In Suva, 67 per cent of the prostitution victims cited lack of educational and employment opportunities', and they 'also expressed a feeling of wanting to help contribute to the family/caregiver income'.

'Lack of parental supervision was cited by sex workers who came from middle to upper class families. They said they did not engage in prostitution out of economic need but neglect had left them vulnerable to peer pressure'.

According to the report, reasons young girls are engaged in prostitution 'range from: a means of supporting their families; street kids being prostituted as a means of survival; taxi drivers exploiting girls in exchange for transport to school or a free ride; young people with disabilities supporting themselves; an opportunity for free alcohol and cigarettes while nightclubbing; and parental neglect'. However, sadly, 'the research team found that not all involved in prostitution were brought up in or experienced financial difficulties at home or lack of access to education' with one 17-year-old stating that 'her mother was a senior civil servant and she did it out of boredom'.

Another factor that came out during the course of the report was that 'some children from outer islands work as prostitutes at night and attend school as students by day'.
'These students were sent to the city to live with relatives and continue their secondary education as such services were not available in remote isolated islands. However, struggling relatives have their own offspring and tend to and leave these visiting relatives to their own devices increasing the vulnerability to fall into activities like CSEC'.

The police officer interviewed on the matter stated that these young girls "resort to selling themselves for $5 to $20 in order to buy stuff for school because their parents would want them to do well at school" and that it was "heartbreaking to see the same young girls the next day trudging along the road to school with their backpacks".

'The report said for most of these girls, leaving the islands was the only choice if they wanted to further their education'.

Another factor that surfaced was that 'lack of privacy in squatter settlements exposed children to behaviour inappropriate for their age like sexual acts between adults' and that this 'in turn puts children at risk implying that sexual intercourse is something to be practiced freely'.

These were apparently statements made by children living in squatter settlements to the research team. The children added that they 'were living in open and exposed conditions, often a one-room dwelling'.

The report states that 'open living arrangements also increases the vulnerability of women and children in these settlements to abuse by family and visitors alike' and that 'children are also at greater risk of dropping out of school making them vulnerable to illegal activities like child labour and commercial sexual exploitation'.

One extremely disturbing case was of 'a father raped his 15-year-old daughter who was confined to a wheelchair by crawling through a tunnel he dug from outside the house leading straight to her bedroom' and 'the girl was rejected by her family who blamed her for the abuse'.
According to Women's Crisis Center deputy co-ordinator, Edwina Kotoisuva, the commercial and sexual exploitation of women and children is 'an underreported issue as victims were concerned about the stigma attached to those involved'.

Also, according to the Fiji Times Online, another disturbing factor discovered by the report was that 'young girls are being prostituted by women who act as agents' and it was 'also noted that a small number of foreign residents have been identified in urban areas as alleged perpetrators of the commercial sexual exploitation of children'.
'In exchange for money, these female pimps arrange meeting points with local perpetrators who are mostly older men'.

'The Save the Children analysis on commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) and child sexual abuse (CSA) warned that the change in trend meant the trade was gradually becoming more organised and complex in nature. It was becoming a lucrative business and thus increased the risks of harm to vulnerable children'.

'Meanwhile, the report said while men run most households, poor households have a higher proportion of women as head compared to other income groups. There is a clear link between economic need and sex work'.
'Women sex workers are often pressured into this work by lack of money caused by unemployment, divorce, desertion, failure of men to pay maintenance and lack of support from relations'.

In a particular area in Fiji, Savusavu, there are places 'that operate as massage parlours but employ underage girls who provide sexual services', according to the report.
'Some of the girls working out of the estates were still in school and a research team on child sexual abuse could not access these premises because of rigid security measures'.

'The team on a Save the Children Fiji mission also found that locals did not want to ruin a family's potential source of income' and according to prostitution victims, "Savusavu is known as a retreat for retired men and women" and interviews in Savusavu 'showed 14 per cent of victims engaged in sex work because they were taking advantage of seemingly affluent foreigners who live there'.
'It said the money these girls received was more than what they would have earned as waitresses or hotel workers'.

According to the report, the research team even witnessed an incident of possible abuse when they 'saw a foreign visitor taking three young girls, in school uniform, in a dinghy to a yacht'. The vessel returned 15 minutes later without one girl however, the 'matter was not reported to police as there was no evidence of the exact nature of activity going on'.
The research team said, "The yachtsman who were taking the young girl out to his yacht earlier in the day, that evening appeared at the bar where we were conducting our observation with another young girl who looked to be about 15 years old. She was very intoxicated and joined a group of young women whose ages ranged between late teens and early 20s already at the bar with two foreigners. We noticed that one of the young women was not drinking" and our "local partner informed us that the woman worked at a local resort and arranged local "escorts" for the tourists at the resort".

Furthermore, 'some yachtsmen visiting Savusavu have been known to lure young village boys with picnic outings and then photograph them as they played in the nude' and the 'boys' age range between four-seven years'.
According to the research team, 'while locals reported knowledge of locally produced pornographic video, exploiters were not prosecuted'.

These disturbing revelations show just how very real the issue of commercial and sexual exploitation of women and children is not just in Fiji but in the Pacific. Our people are extremely vulnerable and our governments must ensure that the appropriate laws are put into place to deter the perpetrators and send out a message that we will not tolerate this sort of abuse in our societies nor will we tolerate foreigners coming in to commit these heinous acts.
This week, Fiji's Social Welfare Ministry discovered that a local girl was found on the streets of Thailand, 'long considered the world's child sex capital', as reported by Fiji Times Online. A 'report to interim Health and Social Welfare Minister Dr Jiko Luveni shows the girl went to Bangkok when she was only 11 years old' and the 'department is trying to trace where she came from and how she went there'.

If this can happen in Fiji, one of the bigger islands in the region, then it obviously can and is probably happening in the smaller islands and the rest of the islands in the region. If there is one thing that we should get out of this report, it is that we are long overdue on updating our laws. Not only that, but it is also time we took a good look at ourselves and the values we are teaching our children. Because the exploitation happening among us is not just being perpetrated by foreigners but family members themselves. It is a sad day when we have to protect our women and children from our own families but that is the reality here.