Every day, thousands of girls and women around the world experience abuse, discrimination, neglect and denial of their rights. As some of the most vulnerable among us, children are often the most affected. No girl should experience these things.

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According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), child trafficking occurs when children are taken out of their protective environment and preyed upon for the purpose of exploitation. Globally, human trafficking is one of the most lucrative and fastest growing transnational crimes.

When a child's family is gripped by poverty and desperate for survival, they become extremely vulnerable to child trafficking. Often, parents are deceived into believing their child will be offered work in a different city. Sometimes, they’re simply too powerless to prevent it.

Children are taken away from their homes and their family. They are put into work that is often physically damaging and always emotionally devastating: labour exploitation, debt bondage, sexual exploitation, forced marriage or adoption, criminal activities, armed conflict and domestic servitude

Who is affected?

UNICEF estimates 1.2 million children are trafficked each year, most noticeably in parts of Western Africa and the Mekong region in East Asia (spanning six countries: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam). Trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation accounts for 58 per cent of all trafficking cases detected globally, while trafficking for forced labour accounts for 36 per cent.

While both males and femlaes are affected by trafficking, globally, women and girls account for 75 per cent of all trafficking victims. Overall, children account for about a third of all trafficking victims and for every three child victims, two are girls and one is a boy. Perpetrators target the most vulnerable.

Sexual exploitation, including online, is the biggest driver of human trafficking. Women and girls sold into the sex trade are subject to particularly devastating consequences, including long-term physical and psychological trauma, disease (including HIV/AIDS), drug addiction, unwanted pregnancy, malnutrition, social ostracism and even death.

What progress has been made?

Progress has been made in the fight against human trafficking, most notably the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol) entered into force in 2003.

The last two decades have seen the average conviction rate triple. Organisations like International Justice Mission (IJM) do incredible work in rescuing trafficking victims and bringing the perpetrators to justice with the help of local authorities.

How does Compassion respond?

While Compassion is not a trafficking prevention organisation, our holistic child development model does reduce the risk of registered children being trafficked. Our role is one of prevention and protection. Our programs provide children with positive and safe environments where they can learn and play among their peers and loving adults who care for them with dignity, respect and integrity.

Critical to this is the local church’s close monitoring of child attendance, home visits and training in recognising abuse of all forms. These relationships play a vital role in bringing every child a measure of safety and security as well as the prospect of counselling, recourse to justice and other means of restoration if a child is affected by exploitation.

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is the practice of removing or permanently injuring the female genital organs for non-medical cultural and social reasons. It is almost always carried out on girls younger than 15. It has absolutely no health benefits.

The consequences of FGM are devastating, both psychologically and physically. The immediate dangers are shock from excruciating pain, haemorrhage, bacterial infection, urine retention and open sores. But the trauma doesn’t end there. FGM survivors face recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility, an increased risk of complications in childbirth and a higher rate of newborn deaths. And so FGM claims the lives of thousands of children, those forced to undergo FGM, as well as those born to FGM survivors, every year.

Who is affected?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 200 million girls and women alive today have experienced FGM in 30 countries across Africa, the Middle East and Asia where FGM is most prevalent.

The WHO has labelled FGM “an extreme form of discrimination against women” and “a violation of the rights of children.” This barbaric practice is mostly carried out on young girls between infancy and the age of 15. Those living in poverty are more likely to undergo FGM, as are daughters of uneducated mothers.

What progress has been made?

The fight to end FGM is now global with non-profits at the helm and strong support from governments. Many countries around the world have banned the practice, including 23 countries in Africa (of those, seven are countries in which Compassion works).

As a result, a few countries have seen rates of FGM fall. In Kenya, the rates in women aged 15 to 49 years fell from 38 per cent in 1998 to 26 per cent in 2008. Yet most other African countries have seen rates stay stable or fall only marginally and despite illegality, FGM is still commonly practiced due to deeply ingrained cultural beliefs. Research shows that if practicing communities themselves decide to abandon FGM, the practice can be eliminated very rapidly.

How does Compassion respond?

As a holistic child development organisation, Compassion fully supports the protection and safety of each child registered within the Child Sponsorship Program. Through Compassion, children are known, loved and protected by their local church as well as their families, meaning an extra layer of care and support to help protect them from harm.

Many Compassion church partners are proactive and committed to addressing the issue of FGM as it arises in their communities. Given FGM is often a cultural practice, our local workers are careful to do this in a sensitive manner so they can build awareness and trust by educating families on the harm caused by FGM.

Child marriage

Defined as marriage before the age of 18, child marriage applies to both boys and girls, however girls are disproportionately affected. Worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday. More than one in three (about 250 million) entered into a union before age 15.

The dangers of child marriage are well documented. According to UNICEF, child brides are at risk of violence, abuse and exploitation. They are less likely to remain in school, more likely to experience domestic violence, and have a higher risk of dying during pregnancy and childbirth.

According to non-profit Girls Not Brides, poverty is one of the main drivers for child marriage. Giving a daughter in marriage means there is one less mouth to feed, while in communities where the dowry system operates, the ‘bride price’ may be welcome income for poor families. The practice can trap girls and families in a cycle of poverty, depriving them of educational and economic opportunities.

Who is affected?

Child marriage among girls is most common in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Of the 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage found in those regions, Compassion works in three: Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Bangladesh. In every region of the world, girls living in poverty are most at risk of child marriage, especially those in rural areas where the practice is most common.

What progress has been made?

Thankfully the practice of child marriage is slowly declining, with the most dramatic progress the fall in the rate of marriage of girls under the age of 15. However, despite the fact that 158 countries have set the legal age for marriage at 18, laws are rarely enforced since the practice of marrying young children is upheld by tradition and social norms.

Providing girls with an education helps break the cycle of poverty: educated women are less likely to marry early and against their will, less likely to die in childbirth, more likely to have healthy babies, and more likely to send their children to school.

How does Compassion respond?

Compassion Australia recognises that the developing countries we work in have unique cultural customs and practices. However, as a holistic child development organisation, we are also acutely aware of the negative impact early marriage has on a child’s present and future reality. Through culturally sensitive programs delivered by local churches who understand their community’s social customs and challenges, children and their families are educated on the dangers of early marriage.

Compassion works with local churches to identify children who are on the brink of unacceptable situations. Help us empower the local church to assist these children through giving to the Highly Vulnerable Children Critical Need.

We understand that these issues can affect all children, but note that in many countries girls are disproportionately affected by these issues.

Words by Monique Wallace