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One in five children suffers one or another form of sexual abuse or victimisation during their childhood

With schools closed and many children spending more time on the Internet than usual, there could be an increased risk of child sex abuse during the COVID-19 health crisis. Doctor George Nikolaidis explains the risks that children face and looks at ways in which they can be better protected.


CA : Hello, with some schools still closed and many young people spending more time on the Internet than usual, it has been suggested that there could be an increased risk of child sex abuse during the COVID-19 health crisis. An anti-crime agency in one Council of Europe member state is even reporting that up to 300 000 people pose a sexual threat to children. To discuss the issue from Athens is Doctor George Nikolaidis, chairperson of the Lanzarote Committee helping to protect children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. **Now, with families and individuals still living under full or even partial lockdown conditions in many parts of Europe and indeed in the rest of the world - how much of a risk is there of increased child sexual abuse and indeed exploitation?


George Nikolaidis : Well, there are multiple risks which have to be addressed by our contemporary societies. One obviously is that if someone is locked up with a predator, it is a horrific situation and we know from decades of research that, unlike what is sometimes believed, most of the sexual predations of children occur within the domestic environment. So, there are hundreds of thousands, maybe more children being locked up with their perpetrator without having any chance of disclosure since they are 24/7 under the surveillance of their own perpetrator. So, that’s one level of increased risk which we know also from anecdotal reports from various countries that they had increased reports or allegations from S.O.S. helplines from children asking for help, seeking assistance once they are locked up in their homes with their perpetrator. There is also another very important aspect to this issue which concerns children locked up in residential or institutional care facilities. We know that in these facilities there is an increased risk of victimisation of children. We also know from anecdotal reports that due to the situation, what happens in those closed systems, since in most countries there are measures to restrict movement, going out and so forth, that sometimes this is not the best way to handle populations of children. We also have other vulnerable groups of children like children in detention, child migrants or child refugees locked up in camps or shelters, children with disabilities, who have increased physical vulnerability given their underlying medical conditions. All these children should be taken care of appropriately. Societies should increase efforts to keep them in a safe environment and not leave them exposed. Societies should make information very available to those children. Given the fact that millions of children are currently at home or in care facilities, societies should try to incorporate information on seeking assistance and on asking for help in daily contact with those children – for instance, in the distance-learning and training activities that happen in many countries. We don’t expect these children to come and seek help. We should make this information available to them, incorporated in the regular contact that societies have with those children.


CA: And of course, all of those groups that you mentioned – migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, children in residential care and children in the home, what chance do they have of reporting incidents of abuses or exploitation, given – as you say – they may well be locked up with their perpetrators?


GN : That is why we consider that for children in lockdown in their own homes and for children in closed facilities, societies should provide different pathways to seeking assistance. We know that in those situations, it is very difficult for a child to find the time, or the appropriate opportunity to even make a phone call. So, in those countries that continue to have training courses via Internet, SOS helplines, internet- based or chat-based resources should be incorporated, in which children can pick up information and use it, if they feel they are in danger, to seek help and assistance. But that also means that societies need to strengthen mechanisms to respond to allegations. In time of panic, we know that societies have tried very hard to address the challenges of the Covid-19 coronavirus epidemic, but sometimes psychosocial services have been forgotten. No, our message in the recent statement we published with the vice chair of the Committee is that especially in these times of pandemic, we should not forget the other pandemic that has been raging for decades in our societies. We should strengthen the mechanisms of intervention in those cases because, let’s say that the child finds the courage and the window of opportunity to send a message seeking help – who is going to go to the place where they are - be it a house, a detention centre, or a residential care facility ? There should be services equipped and ready to provide an appropriate response and to move the child to safety.


CA: The Council of Europe Convention on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, also known as the Lanzarote Convention, pushes for criminalisation of all kinds of sexual offences against children. Will we likely see more cases coming before courts as a result of the coronavirus pandemic?


GN : That depends on the rate of disclosure. We know that the cases we know of all over the globe are just the tip of the iceberg. Independent research based on anonymous questionaires with big-population samples reveals that the magnitude of the phenomenon is much greater than we might think, if we were just to look at administrative data. We launched a campaign throughout Europe entitled, “One in five”, just to give the message that one in five children suffers one or other form of sexual abuse or victimisation during their childhood. Now if you look at the administrative figures, the figures are much much much lower. We have calculated the quantitative discrepancy between known cases and what children disclosed to us, and the gap is enormous. The gap is more than 1/100. So, I think that what will really make a difference in the rate of disclosure that we have, is whether we give those mechanisms of disclosure and make them available to children in order for children to make use of them.


CA : And given that, as we say, many children are or have been in a lockdown situation possibly with perpetrators of sexual exploitation, Europol, the European Union agency for law enforcement cooperation has reportedly said it’s been told by partner agencies that there is - and indeed I quote – “increased online activity by those seeking child abuse material as a result of the coronavirus pandemic”. How worried should we be by all this?


GN : That is a very important aspect of protecting children from sexual victimisation and abuse. Given the fact that children are denied other activities, they tend to make greater use of Internet-based services. We know that a good proportion of victimisation of children, or at least soliciting or phishing for potential victims, uses web-based tools or the Internet, or other ICT-based instruments in order to get access to children. That is why we consider that information should be made available both to children and adolescents and their parents or care-givers, in order to make them aware of the real dangers that exist in using some of the ICTs that are available to them. We shouldn’t criminalise the use of ICTs. That would be a rather pointless task. Nor should we criminalise activities that children may sometimes engage in between themselves. But we should try to educate them, to make them aware of the dangers, and to make safe use of available contemporary technologies.


CA: And finally then, in terms of child sexual exploitation and abuse during the Covid-19 situation, what lessons could we learn for the future ?


GN : One good lesson is that – okay, our societies are technology-driven and we invest a lot in trying to use modern technology to tackle any threats apparent in our society. We invest in technology to find medicines, vaccines or to increase our capacity to provide ventilators for use in intensive care, and so forth. But there are ‘social technologies’ which are at least equally important. Social interventions save lives. We shouldn’t forget that some very well-known interventions could have saved hundreds of thousands lives, even in this current epidemic. Take for example the recent spate of deaths in care homes for the elderly. We are very lucky in one sense that this current covid epidemic does not affect children and minors so much. Imagine what might have happened if this virus were like H1N1, which affected younger people. The death toll among children would have been great. One simple ‘social technology’ like alternative placement of children and breaking up big old-fashioned institutions, which are harmful anyway, might have saved more lives than modern technology. So, do not forget social technologies, psychosocial issues like short-term protection, because they save thousands, millions of children’s lives.


CA : Dr. George Nikolaidis, thank you very much indeed.

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