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Making data count against child abuse

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The battle against child exploitation takes place in dark territory. A new global institute will use data to cast light into the gloom and ensure children are seen and heard in the fight.

There is a hidden global pandemic, one which may affect one in eight of the world’s children. Though it is widespread in all regions of the globe, among all sections of society, discussion of it is constrained by stigma and underreporting.

This pandemic is Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (CSEA). Those who seek to fight it face intimidating challenges. The stigma that keeps abuse and exploitation hidden in the shadows, also impedes research and hampers policy development.

This, and other factors, conspire to mean data identifying both the problem and its solutions is often lacking or understates the extent of abuse. Meanwhile, the lightning speed of technological change and a global explosion in internet use make online abuse and exploitation particularly poorly understood, but particularly urgent.

But a new global data institute for child safety within the University of Edinburgh, established by Human Dignity Foundation, will shine new light on the issue.

Its vision will be to safeguard children by taking a data-driven, evidence-based approach to understanding how common child sexual exploitation and abuse is around the world.

“The multiplicity of overlapping issues that need attention if we are to make the world safer for children can be overwhelming,” says Paul Stanfield, Executive Director elect of the new institute.

“However, in this institute, we will have the scientific expertise and the on-the-ground knowledge from frontline practitioners and policymakers to make a significant, evidence-based contribution towards safeguarding children from sexual exploitation and abuse globally.

“Before we can tackle CSEA we first need to understand it. That means improving access to good quality prevalence data. Our analysis of this data can then be used to inform and drive strategies and policies that protect children.”

Where there’s a will

Despite the stigma, CSEA has made more headlines in recent years. In the UK, a national outcry followed the exposure of decades of abuse by the TV presenter Jimmy Saville. Internationally, abuse revelations have hit the Roman Catholic Church. More recently, the #metoo movement has prompted disclosures from survivors of CSEA, such as the #metooinceste hashtag which burst into public consciousness in France earlier this year.

Increased attention has driven a growing global awareness that child sexual exploitation and abuse is serious and widespread. Momentum is building to find better ways to prevent and respond to it, and some countries have followed up with action.

Among many possible examples of promising activity, former British Prime Minister David Cameron earned praise for identifying child sexual exploitation as a “national threat” in 2015. Funding and policy initiatives soon followed. Kenya has recently advanced some important CSEA legislation despite more limited resources, according to Out of the Shadows, a respected index.

Abstract data

But this impetus for action is constrained by a limited understanding of the problem, and patchy evidence on the best solutions. Hence the need for the new institute, which won’t only generate and curate data, but will work to get that data into the hands of those who need it.

“The idea is to work with those — in government, in NGOs, in advocacy groups, or elsewhere — who are grappling with these challenges, open up the important data and evidence they need, and support them in using this insight to drive change,” says Professor Catherine Maternowska, Principal Investigator – Policy at the new institute. End Violence Lab.

Inclusion for impact

In 2013, UNICEF Innocenti, a global research centre for children, and University of Edinburgh collaborated on a multi-country study into the drivers of violence against children. Professor Maternowska and Dr Deborah Fry, Principal Investigator – Data at the institute, co-led the study.

Central to its approach was to involve people who might normally just be subjects of research as active partners in advising, designing and delivering the research. This method – known as participatory research – proved crucial in turning the research into policy impact. Among other outcomes, the Drivers of Violence study contributed to building evidence-based legislation banning corporal punishment in schools in three countries, affecting more than 10.3 million children.

The new institute will also take a participatory approach to research with children and adult survivors of sexual abuse, whose voices too often go unheard.

“We need to listen to those who feel threatened by or have experienced sexual violence, so that we can unlock meaningful solutions to complex social and cultural challenges. Real-time, place-based, participatory research will help us do that,” says Professor Maternowska.

As such, the institute will involve children and young people’s voices within project governance, data design and analysis, and the interpretation and reporting of findings. For example, ongoing participatory research workshops in 15 countries — delivered with partners from the University of Western Sydney — will enable children and young people to complete a range of group and scenario-based activities.

“These consultations are a powerful tool, producing rich, qualitative data. They are designed to capture young people’s insights in a deliberative process while allowing them to ask questions, discuss and explore their experience and views,” says Dr Fry

Standing united

Despite all the challenges, organisations across the world are battling to tackle CSEA and improve the lives of children. The institute will forge partnerships with these organisations whenever possible. Two already secured are with Together for Girls and the WeProtect Global Alliance, two organisations fight child sexual exploitation and abuse.

These alliances are particularly significant because the CSEA sector can be fragmented. For example, online and offline violence may be treated as separate problems, rather than two parts of a unified continuum of abuse and exploitation.

Silhouette of person using  a phone

“Connecting what happens to children online and offline is both vital and strategic. Increasingly, children do not recognise a divide between their online and offline lives. Our response to violence must take this into account,” says Professor Maternowska.

“To help countries prevent what is ultimately one problem — violence against children — we must forge a common prevention strategy that integrates rather than separates the online context.”

Alongside other third sector and government partners, the institute will work closely with law enforcement. For example, the team will use participatory research workshops to learn more about the police experience of secondary trauma and responding to CSEA.

“As the field of violence prevention matures, diverse ways of capturing data on both the magnitude and the drivers of violence are needed,” says Dr Fry.

“The global data institute for child safety will be the place where stakeholders — including policymakers, researchers and practitioners — can work together to identify creative and responsive, rather than reactive, solutions to prevent child sexual exploitation and abuse.”

Image credits: hand – Ana Paula Avila/Getty; data abstract – zf L/Getty; girl on phone – Ahmet Yarali