Professor Carla Ferstman is a member of the Justice Rapid Response (JRR) Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Justice Experts Roster. She recently wrote a research paper for JRR on the investigation of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) allegations involving children.
Along with Fabian Ilg, who is a Justice Rapid Response Roster Expert, Prof. Ferstman participated in a launch event: Investigating Allegations of Sexual Exploitation & Abuse of Children Occurring in Humanitarian Settings: Reflections from Practice (recording available).
Prof. Ferstman and Fabian Ilg recently conducted an interview with JRR about the research paper. Their responses are reproduced on the ELR Blog below with permission and thanks.
Carla, As the author of the report, could you summarize the key findings and its recommendations?
The purpose of the report is to explain the key challenges to investigate allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse involving child victims. It is not a “how to” guide, but there are several clear messages to the report.
First, allegations of SEA involving child victims are likely to happen in settings that present unequal power dynamics. This will include fragile settings whether impacted by conflict, insecurity, weak governance, poverty, disease, or natural disasters. Because of this likelihood, all humanitarian agencies and organizations working in these environments need to actively prepare for such eventualities. Hoping that it won’t happen is simply not a good enough strategy. Active preparation includes having clear child-friendly policies in place, being proactive about uncovering child SEA, having specialist staff on hand, and taking effective steps to mitigate the risk of SEA involving child victims.
Second, agencies and organizations should ensure that their policies and practices maximize the rights of child victims. Ensuring the best interests of the child in relation to SEA investigations is not only about protecting children from psychological and other forms of harm during investigations; it also requires that children’s rights to information, to participate in investigation processes, to justice and to reparations are all maximized to the greatest possible extent. How child victims are consulted during SEA investigations should reflect their evolving capacities and their maturity. Third, agencies and organizations should recognize and address the conflicts of interest they often have when conducting SEA investigations. This includes ensuring children have access to independent advice and support about how best their interests, needs and rights can be respected during a SEA investigation and subsequently.
Being the first report of its kind, dedicated to exploring the issue of SEA investigations through a child-centered perspective, what do you hope it will achieve?
It is hoped that the report will raise awareness about a really complex issue that arises all too often in humanitarian settings.
Hopefully, it will spur agencies and organizations to action, so that the needs and rights of child victims can be met and so that accountability for this horrific crime can prevail.
Fabian, why do you feel that this project and paper are important and needed?
First, I am very proud and glad to have had the opportunity to participate in this very important project and to bring in some of my own experience from the field while investigating different SEA cases involving children (CSEA) over many years, both as a JRR expert and as a professional in law enforcement.
This report is one of the most complete documents created about this topic and fills a large void. Over the past years, the focus to improve protection of CSEA victims has increased a lot. As a result, organizations working in the humanitarian sector have needed guidance and specific standards to prevent CSEA, as many CSEA cases still occur regularly all over the world. Now more than ever, it is very important to do the utmost to protect children, the most vulnerable human beings, to treat them with respect during this process, and to start helping survivors to make their future life as bearable as possible. This report provides the needed guidance in a comprehensive manner, and is therefore a perfect tool for all who may be involved with CSEA during their work.
As someone who has conducted SEA investigations, how do you have to adapt your approach to investigate SEA against children?
SEA investigations are very complex on different levels. CSEA investigations are an even greater challenge. In many cases, material evidence is missing and the victims’ voice is the only proof. Relationships of dependency and abuse of power are some of the usual modus operandi used by perpetrators, to make victims appear to have wanted the sexual contact. In court, judges follow the strong voice of the lawyers of the perpetrators and the statements of adults often have a much higher weight than that of children. Children are very vulnerable and can often not distinguish between right and wrong, and as such their judgement is viewed as limited. Furthermore, the chances of their re-victimization at a later point in time are sadly quite high.
This makes CSEA very different from SEA. We, as CSEA investigators, have a grave responsibility to protect these young victims, and must do so by putting them in the centre of the investigation. This starts with ensuring all their rights are protected during the investigation process. Among other things, to be interviewed is a very traumatic experience for a child. The victim-centred approach is in many ways the most critical step to support a child and provides them with the chance of having a bearable life in the future.