Child prostitution is a troubling issue that is increasingly causing concern among the various organisations in Belgium that are tasked with tackling the problem.
They include Child Focus, the Belgian centre for missing and sexually exploited young people which, this year, celebrates its 21st anniversary.
The Brussels-based NGO says it does not know whether there is more visibility and attention for the phenomenon or whether there is a real increase of cases. However, the organization has seen a rise in cases reported to it.
It focuses on the phenomenon of teenage pimps as one of its priorities, not because of the rise but because it says victims need protection and support adapted to their needs.
Child Focus also highlights new trends, including some girls being “groomed” for exploitation from the age of 11.
Another concern, it says, is that social media, including platforms such as Google and Instagram are increasingly being used to “lure” youngsters into the often sordid world of “sexploitation.”
Laurine Hespel, a case manager at Child Focus who works directly with victims’ families, says, “We don’t want to point the finger at our care system. The perpetrators are the ones to blame. There is a lack of sufficient places and a lack of variety in professional care and guidance, adapted to the needs of the victims of teenage pimps.”
“This (prostitution) is an odious form of sexual exploitation.”
Child Focus was launched to investigate cases of missing children, so-called runaways.
The stark statistics, sadly, speak for themselves.
In 2018 – the most recently available data – the charity handled 39 new cases of sexual exploitation of minors. This included 28 individuals who were victims of what are known, in the jargon, as “teenage pimps.”
Hespel says, “Teenage pimps mostly target vulnerable youngsters suffering from low self-esteem and insecurity. A lot of victims reside in youth care institutions, each one of them confronted with their own specific background and problems. As such they are more vulnerable and therefore the ideal target for teenage pimps. However, not all victims fit into this profile.”
Another 38 cases which came to light prior to 2018, are still open. “This shows the harsh reality of these girls and how difficult it is for them to get out. It often takes years to cut all boundaries with their pimp and to start a new life,” she adds.
The International Convention on the Rights of the Child protects children from “all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse,” in particular from “the exploitative use of children in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices”.
A teenage pimp is a human trafficker who establishes a relationship of dependence with young women, often minors – through deception, pressure, physical and psychological force and/or abuse of their vulnerability – and seduces them into prostitution or other illegal activities.
The victims are forced to have paid sex with the pimp’s friends or customers. But it is also possible that they have to traffic drugs or commit a theft. Victims of teenage pimps correspond to all the characteristics of victims of human trafficking, where the perpetrator treats the victim as an economic product: the pimp sells sex with a minor to his customers.
Some pimps groom their victims and try to establish a relation of trust by giving them attention, gifts and ‘love’. After a while they may tell the girl that sleeping with a friend or a stranger is just a one-time thing to help pay a debt – otherwise their sweetheart will end up in jail.
However, social media makes it much more easy for pimps to lure girls into prostitution more quickly. When they manage to acquire nude pictures or sensitive information they can blackmail the girls, saying they will make the material public if they don’t sleep with other men.
There are pimps who operate individually. There are pimps who are part of a sort of hierarchy. And there are pimp ‘groups’/gangs in which the hierarchy is not present. Sometimes they exchange girls.
One big difference from the “conventional” world of prostitution is the way in which sexual services provided by these young victims will be “offered”.
Rather than sat in a shop window in a red light district, such as the notorious area near Brussels’ Gare du Nord, they will be advertised online or via a pimps’ private contacts. The business, however, is the same: selling sex.
The pimp knows exactly what he (or she) is doing. In Belgium, prostitution is legal but it is strictly against the law for anyone aged under 18 to sell themselves for sex or to solicit anyone of this age for such purposes.
“The idea,” says Kim Van Hoorde, also from Child Focus, “is to keep these girls and what they are doing strictly under the radar.”
The “irony”, perhaps, is that very often the young victim will never see a cent of any monies made from selling her body.
The cash mostly goes to the pimps themselves. However, to keep the girls satisfied and as part of their game of ‘attracting and rejecting’, they may give them something such as new clothes.
Most of the time it is not extravagant. The signs might be that they have a new phone, they have a different style in clothes, they become isolated from friends and family, they skip class.
Such is the degree of dependency imposed by the pimp that the young victim often finds if incredibly hard to free herself from her trapped world.
“She may find herself financially dependent or isolated from her friends and family,” notes Van Hoorde, who has special responsibility at Child Focus for education and prevention.
The 28 cases Child Focus dealt with last year were all Belgian nationals but included several with an ethnic minority background, including Nigeria.
Last October, Myria, Belgium’s federal migration centre, revealed that Belgium serves as an important hub when it comes to Nigerian prostitution networks involving underage girls. It was reported that some child prostitutes were working for as little as €5.
The good news is that help is at hand for youngsters who become caught up in this sad world, says Hespel, who is responsible for cases of child disappearances and sexual exploitation.
Child Focus, which has been up and running since 1998, has a special helpline which gives people a chance to report suspicious activity in this area. Calls can be made anonymously and all are followed up.
The charity, which also seeks to combat online images of children, employs about 60 people, plus volunteers, some of whom are dedicated solely to tackling the issue. They work closely with the police and other groups in Belgium like ECPAT and PAYOKE in Antwerp which is one of three in Belgium (the others are in Liege and Brussels) that help victims of human trafficking.
Utopsi, an interest group for and by sex workers in Belgium, says that pimping must be redefined, saying that the term is currently too broad.
A setback to campaigners came earlier this year with the collapse of a criminal trial involving a group of men charged with having sex with underage girls. The men claimed they did not know the girls were below the age of consent and the case was thrown out by the judge.
“This was very disappointing outcome as it could have been an opportunity for the judicial authorities to set an example,” says Child Focus.
While Child Focus and the authorities continue to rely on each other in the fight against sexual exploitation of young people, the case shows that there is still much to be done, cautions Van Hoorde, adding that there are also still insufficient places of care adapted to the specific needs of sexually exploited teenagers.
The big overarching problem is that the phenomenon remains hidden and this is one reason, she says.
The message is: it is important that people learn how to recognize signs of exploitation by teenage pimps.