As night falls in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, the city’s colourful environment transforms into a playground after dark. Among the lively scenes of restaurants, bars, dance floors, music, and all night parties, one of the city's darkest secrets is hidden: its proliferating sex tourism industry.
All along the historic wall of the city, prostitutes wait patiently in their usual spots, traffickers make deals in night alleys, and locals will say you can buy anything or anyone if you can pay for it. These transactions often involve sex with minors.
Sex tourism is increasing worldwide but its rise has been particularly high in Latin American countries. Tourism destinations such as Rio in Brazil, Cancun in Mexico, and beaches in Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras are often attractive to tourists not only for their climate, nature and culture but also for their cheap and easy access to sex. Major sports events, bachelor parties, business conferences, forums and other events involving mostly men are regularly associated with a demand for sexual services.
While the legislation on prostitution varies from one country to the other, the growing demand for sexual services has propelled a sex industry that operates largely in the shadows and uses coercive methods to force people into prostitution. Victims are mostly women and children, while indigenous people, migrants and LGBT individuals are particularly vulnerable. The conditions of poverty, discrimination, violence, low levels of education, illegal immigration, and lack of law enforcement in these countries allow traffickers to operate and expand their businesses.
Even though in recent years Latin American countries have made significant efforts to combat sexual exploitation, including passing anti-slavery laws, granting resources for special programmes and creating partnerships with NGOs, the problem is still present and it endangers thousands of lives. According to the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, the majority of countries in Latin America do not fully satisfy the standards for combating this crime.
The proliferation of sex trafficking and child sex tourism in Latin America is harmful and dangerous not only to its victims but to the entire region as it weakens the state of law, endangers the lives of their citizens, threatens the safety of the businesses, and compromises the countries' economic and social development. Therefore, it is imperative that all sectors of society take immediate measures to eradicate it. National and local governments are at the core of these efforts; nevertheless, the private sector has an important role to play in combating the crime.
Most of the actions taken by companies in the fight against human trafficking have been directed towards philanthropic donations or in training their employees to recognize victims, denounce the crime, and cooperate with the authorities.
While these are important advances in the subject, much remains to be done in the matter of acknowledging companies’ employees, directors and stakeholders, as consumers for sex services that are, in some cases, illicit. The recent movements against sexual harassment and sexual abuse have thrown into light a system that allows the abuse of power to remain in impunity to protect private interests. This is even worse when the victim is living in a situation of exploitation, is a child, or has no access to justice.
The corporate culture that has allowed, or in some cases encouraged, the view of certain humans as sexual objects, or tradeable goods, has to change. This will benefit the company’s image, internal relationships and operations, and will create a greater good for all society. Here are six actions that companies can take internally to fight against child sex tourism and sexual exploitation.
Raise awareness and develop specific training programs on the dangers of sex trafficking and sex with minors, brief employees with prostitution legislation in different countries, when they take business trips abroad.
In sex tourism, the perpetrator tends to be a foreigner who leaves the country after committing the crime. This represents a major difficulty for the investigation and the prosecution. While countries’ legislation is restricted by their national borders, companies can cooperate with the investigation, share key information and make employees accountable internally for sexual misconduct, even if the crime was not committed in the employee’s home country.
3. Corporate policies
Require signed statements in which the employee has to state that he/she has not knowingly engaged in the sexual exploitation of children.
4. Track transactions
While this is mostly done by companies in the financial sector, any company that provides their employees with a corporate bank account can track down anomalous patterns of transactions made at certain hours of the night, or for large amounts of money.
Cooperate with authorities, NGOs, institutions and individuals working against sex trafficking. Create spaces for dialogue to share anti-trafficking strategies and practices.
6. Support survivors
Rescued victims of trafficking tend to fall back into prostitution and other illicit activities because they suffer from discrimination and they are excluded from society. Companies can create special programmes for supporting trafficking victims, giving them traineeships and jobs and help them reintegrate into society.
It is commonly thought that a company only addresses the sexual misconduct of their employees, directors or stakeholders when it causes a scandal that threatens the company’s reputation. But – as the demand for sex tourism increases, and a large proportion of children grow up in poverty and violence where they are easy prey for traffickers – Latin America is jeopardising its own future. This is why companies with business in the region have to take immediate action. Corporate culture has to change before the next sexual scandal, not after.