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Fifth meeting of the
Network of Contact Parliamentarians
to stop sexual violence against children

Preventing sexual violence against children

Florence, 17 November 2011

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Speech by Maud de Boer-Buquicchio,
Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe

Madam President, Distinguished Parliamentarians, Dear friends,

I am delighted to be with you here today to present the Council of Europe’s work and commitment to the global efforts to combat sexual exploitation and abuse of children. I thank Gordon Alexander for recalling how we built up this work piece by piece together, to acknowledge children as fully-fledged holders of human rights – not mini-human beings with mini rights – and to protect them against violence.

Today, I am proud to tell you more about one of the fruits of this work, the establishment of a unique and innovative legal framework: the Convention on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse – the Lanzarote Convention which was adopted in 2007, and entered into force on the 1st July 2010. To date, 15 countries have ratified it and another 28 have signed. In many of these, the ratification process is underway.

A very thorough preparatory work preceded the drafting of the Lanzarote convention. The starting point was of course the evidence gathered from a combination of results of various studies undertaken by research teams across Europe and available statistics by Unicef, International Labour Organisation and the World Health Organisation that a high number of children are victims of sexual violence and that sexual violence can take many and new forms. Then we proceeded to the analysis of the legal instruments and the strategies available to combat it, both at national and at international level. Gaps in the criminal codes and international treaties were identified. Obstacles to the effective prosecution of perpetrators, spotted. The vulnerability of child victims was highlighted.
Even more important, the worrying lack of measures to effectively prevent sexual violence was brought to light. The need to reinforce international cooperation and partnerships among stakeholders at national level was an obvious conclusion. After having collected all this evidence, the drafters of the Convention elaborated a legal instrument which responds to an urgent need for action through carefully drafted provisions aiming to prevent sexual violence, protect children and prosecute the offenders.
I would be tempted to discuss with you also the other aspects of the Convention, such as the prosecution of offenders, but I will focus on prevention which is the topic of your meeting today.

The Lanzarote Convention contains many provisions aiming at preventing sexual violence. These include:

First, measures targeting professionals in contact with children:
- Parties are obliged to take legislative and other measures to encourage awareness on the subject among professionals who work with children in the field of education, health, social protection, judicial and law-enforcement sectors as well as in the areas of sport, culture and leisure activities.
- The Convention requires screening of candidates to professions involving contacts with children to ensure that they have not been convicted of sex offences against children. We know that failure to do so has been at the origin of many shocking events.
- The Convention also provides for the early identification of child victims of sexual abuse through the obligation to report suspicion. This also takes into consideration how to deal with the question of confidentiality, which normally restricts certain professionals from sharing information that could protect victims.

Second, measures targeting children:
- Parties are required to ensure that children in primary and secondary schools receive sex education and information on the risks of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse;
- It also requires states to set up special telephone or Internet help lines to provide advice to callers;
- States should also encourage the participation of children, according to the evolving capacity, in the development and implementation of state policies, programmes or others initiatives concerning the fight of sexual violence.

Third, measures targeting the private sector, media and civil society:
- States must encourage the private sector, in particular the information and communication technology sector, the tourism and travel industry and the banking and finance sectors to participate in the development, financing and implementation of policies and programmes to prevent sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children. The private sector should also be encouraged to implement internal norms through self-regulation and co-regulation;
- States also have to encourage the media to provide appropriate information concerning all aspects of sexual exploitation and abuse of children,
- Co-operation with civil society should be promoted and its programmes and initiatives should be supported also financially.

Fourth, measures targeting sex offenders and potential sex offenders:
- The Convention requires states to develop treatment programmes and intervention measures for sexual offenders but also for people who are aware that they suffer from uncontrollable sexual impulsions towards children?

As an important proportion of sex offences against children are committed by other children, the Convention requests that intervention programmes or measures be developed to address those cases, and take into account the age of the offender.

Last, and not least, measures targeting the general public include the obligation to promote or conduct awareness raising campaigns providing information on the phenomenon and the prevention measures that can be taken.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

From our analysis of policies and legislations at national level and our contacts with ombudspersons and civil society representatives, we have concluded that, while amending legislation to introduce a new offence may be relatively easy, most countries are struggling with the introduction of prevention measures. This is at least partly due to the taboo surrounding sexuality and to the fact that, in many countries, we are still at the stage of denial. And denial is the worst enemy of progress.

Denial of problems distorts reality and undermines people’s and society’s capacity to overcome obstacles. Denial keeps making victims, even after the problem has been solved. Denial fuels negative feelings and limits the scope of democratic debate.

In my opinion, the worst case scenario is when denial meets taboo on an issue affecting children. And this is, I am afraid, the scenario set for sexual violence against children.

It is for all these reasons that the Council of Europe decided to launch a Pan-European campaign to promote the Lanzarote Convention and to raise awareness on the extend of sexual violence and the measures that can be taken to prevent it and report it.

One of the main message emerging from our conversations with organisations working with families, from the education sector and from early childhood professionals, was the desperate need of making parents aware of the importance of helping their very young children to recognise and report sexual violence. However, although we realise the importance of raising parents’ awareness on the risks, we believe it is essential they have easy access to information on the measures they can take to protect their children. This is precisely why we have developed the underwear rule material. And this is why I am deeply grateful to Ms Carfagna for having supported the Council of Europe in this endeavour through the launching of the One in Five campaign in Rome and for all the measures she has taken to promote its material in Italy, showing the way to many other countries.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Much attention is being paid in national parliaments to the need to amend criminal codes to align with the Lanzarote Convention. And rightly so. However, we should be extremely careful and remind our legislators and governments the need to invest in prevention. Sexuality education, screening and training of professionals, awareness campaigns, partnerships with the private sector, treatment of potential offenders, help lines… These are not “second class” provisions in our Convention and we have to make sure they are not overlooked.

It is therefore a pleasure to note that your Commission has decided to devote this meeting to this critical topic. You know that the Council of Europe is keen in listening to you and ready to support you. And I am personally grateful for all the efforts you put in defending this cause.

I am very confident that the future will bring many opportunities to test ideas and assess the impact of the measures taken in the various countries. I trust the Council of Europe will soon have the resources to expand its website and network to give visibility to good practices and monitor progress in the development of prevention policies. The first meeting of the Committee of the parties to the Lanzarote Convention, which took place in Strasbourg on 20 September, was very encouraging in this respect.

Let me also welcome the decision of the European Economic and Social Committee to create a database collecting initiatives of preventive measures based on the Lanzarote Convention.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The promotion of children’s rights and the elimination of all forms of violence against children are the two priority objectives for the Council of Europe. Measures to eliminate sexual violence have to be understood and implemented in this wider context. Other Council of Europe tools have been designed to take into account the whole picture and to “zoom out” from specific problems without losing focus. This is the case, for instance, of our guidelines on integrated national strategies for the protection of children from violence.

We will have an opportunity to do so soon in Monaco.

I encourage you to try to visualise this global picture and bring it always with you as a reminder of what needs to be done. And hopefully, one day, the picture will turn into a huge smiley.

Thank you for your attention.