Monday, May 29, 2023

Dutch NGO fights against child sexual exploitation in Colombia

The Down To Zero Alliance is trying to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Eline van Nes went to Bogota and Riohacha in Colombia to find out more about those efforts.

Selling their bodies

In the neighborhood of Santa Fe in Bogota, also known as the “Tolerance Zone,” young girls, boys, as well as transvestites stand on the streets to sell sex. The age of consent in Colombia is 14 years old. However, it’s still a felony if anyone pays a girl or boy under the age of 18 for sex. Prostitution is legal in Colombia, but limited to brothels and designated zones.

A place to feel safe

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This young girl is one of the 16 girls at the Renacer Foundation Shelter for victims of commercial sexual exploitation. Commercial sexual exploitation of children consists of child prostitution, child pornography and child trafficking for sexual purposes. The girls and boys in the shelter, aged 7 to 17, stay in a protected area where they are given psychological help and support.

A roof over their heads

The girls and boys at the shelter each have their own bed and locker for their belongings. On average, they stay for a year. Besides having a roof over their heads and food, they receive psychological help. Some children were abandoned by their families, while others have family who visit them once in a while, but do not have the means to protect them from commercial sexual exploitation.

Extreme mood swings

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One of the 16 girls at a shelter for victims of commercial sexual exploitation stands in front of a mural of the organization. There are two flags on the wall, representing the different countries of origin. There are Colombian girls, Venezuelans and members of the ethnic Wayuu group. The girls and boys have extreme mood swings, switching from incessant crying to physical violence.

Raising awareness

Mario Gomez is Bogota’s public prosecutor, specialized in human trafficking. He is also head of a national campaign to increase awareness of the dangers of job offers that seem too good to be true. Many victims don’t want to talk about their situation. Some do not see themselves as victims of commercial sexual exploitation, others are ashamed, or are afraid of retaliation.

Mulling his future

William Plazas, 17, shares his bed with his mother and sister. According to William, many economically disadvantaged people in Colombia, as well as Venezuelans, consider prostitution as a way out. He knows many girls and boys who are sexually exploited, but are not aware of it. For a new mobile phone, young boys and girls will perform sexual favors.

A strong bond

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Luz Angela Lavao, William’s mother, is protective of her children because they live so close to Bogota’s red light district — especially her 13-year-old daughter, Valentina. William has a strong relationship with his mother and shares everything with her. It was thanks to his mother that William ended up volunteering for Renacer Foundation, where he became involved in prevention projects.

Overcoming their trauma

To protect the children, the faces of the victims are not shown. Nor are the children directly asked any questions about their experiences. By drawing and playing games, the extent of their trauma becomes clear. These activities allow them to talk about their hopes and dreams, and — especially in the case of many Venezuelans — what they have had to leave behind.

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