Throughout human history, children have always been vulnerable and in need of protection. Historically, virtually every society has had its own customs about children that have gone on to become unacceptable in the modern day. When reflecting on ancient practices of child abuse, we come across some evidence that is very difficult to bear, such as the killing of newborn infants with health issues in Ancient Greece and Sparta, the “offering” of their daughter to guests as a form of hospitality among the Inuit, and early (pre-puberty) marriages of girls in India.
We can find similar customs in stories and literary works of Armenian origin as well. In particular, Hovhannes Tumanyan addressed the issue of early marriages in the Armenian context in his poem entitled “Maro”, where 9-year-old Maro is married off, eventually leading the child to suicide. Frequently, enlightened Armenian thought seriously criticized—through literature—the customs that we now call gross violations of law, and set the latter down in legal mechanisms.
As for Armenian legal tradition, there is also a reference to the issue of early or forced marriage in Mkhitar Gosh’s Law Code (Datastanagirk), which had the force of law in the medieval Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. Legal equality was established between a woman and a man in marital and property relations. In Gosh’s view, a woman was a person of dignity. According to the norms set out in the Law Code, a marriage between a man and a woman was to be realized by the free will of the parties. The marital age of a woman was 15 years old. (Of course, we must take into account that girls were married at a much earlier age at that time.) If the marriage took place when she was younger, or against her will—for example, as a result of abduction—the marriage was considered forced, and the woman could seek a divorce. This approach was of fundamental importance, since marriage was legally a voluntary union.
Unfortunately, in the absence of statehood, this progressive Armenian legal culture began to erode. Especially while living under different Muslim societies, some harmful customs emerged, which Armenian society is still confronting.
Although norms prohibiting violent behavior against, and sexual exploitation of, children have been enshrined in international and domestic legal mechanisms, nevertheless, violence against children—and especially sexual violence—remains one of the most serious challenges in the modern world. Sexual exploitation and sexual violence are among the worst forms of violence against children.
The prevalence of sexual violence against children is increasing year by year, both in the world and in Armenia. It is taking on new forms, as new technologies emerge. Experts claim that the actual number of cases are much higher than what is reflected in official data; however, even the official statistics are quite worrying.
Studies show that about one in five children in Europe is a victim of some form of sexual violence. In 80% of these cases, the perpetrator was someone familiar and trusted by the child, and as a result abused that trust.
In particular, the 2019 Child Maltreatment Report, prepared by the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, states that 9.3% of abused children have been sexually abused.
According to the same source, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys fall victim to sexual crimes.
Unfortunately, cases of violence against children, especially sexual violence, are on the rise around the world. According to UNICEF data, millions of girls and boys worldwide are exposed to sexual violence and exploitation each year, but many do not report it until adulthood, or these crimes are exposed much later under other circumstances, such as when seeking solutions to difficult psychological situations.
According to Russian statistics, the number of child sexual abuse cases has increased by 42% over the past five years.
The number of sexual crimes against children is also quite high in Armenia. According to Armenia’s Investigative Committee, of the 200 criminal cases of violence against children in 2016, 88 were sexual in nature; in 2017, 99 out of 265 criminal cases of violence against children were sexual in nature; in 2018, 76 out of 317 criminal cases; in 2019, 91 out of the 360 criminal cases; in 2020, 77 out of 328 criminal cases, while in the first half of 2021 alone, 57 out of 229 criminal cases on crimes against children were of a sexual nature.
Signs of sexual abuse of a child are not always easy to discern for a number of factors. Perpetrators use a number of manipulative tactics to silence their victims. They often use their power over the victim to intimidate the child. They may convince the child that these acts are normal, that the child has enjoyed them, that they are an expression of love, and that the child is “special” to the abuser. Abusers often threaten a child who refuses to take part in the act or intends to tell other people about the incident, with future complications or punishment. Therefore, sexual abuse of a child not only causes physical injury, but also damages their confidence.
The widespread use of digital technology can also put children at risk on the internet. Of course, information and communication technologies are important tools for children in solving various educational, social and integration issues, but at the same time, their use can generate serious risks of sexual exploitation and abuse, sexual mediation, online recruitment of children, participation in extreme political or religious movements, or of sexual assault and exploitation.
The number of phone, computer and internet users in the world is increasing each year, with a large number of those users also being children. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when children switched to distance learning, it is very likely that the level of risk to children increased accordingly; such alarms are being raised in different countries by law enforcement agencies and civil society organizations. Spending more time on the internet can increase the likelihood that children will come into contact with online predators. Physical distancing measures are probably increasing the online accessibility of children, which carries with it risk that it can be used by predators to recruit children for sexual exploitation. Parallel to the increase of adults isolated at home, the demand for child sexual abuse material may also increase, leading to an increase in child sexual exploitation cases.
Orders to stay home also mean that families are forced to stay indoors which, in the case of children living with abusive adults, can lead to an increase in sexual exploitation both in everyday situations and online.
In particular, in 2020, law enforcement agencies of a number of European countries recorded an increase in violence against children, including sexual violence, due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Children also become more vulnerable due to poverty, war and migration. A recent global assessment on migrant children by UNICEF found that, as of 2020, there were 31 million migrant children worldwide, many of whom travel without their parents and were subjected to a variety of types of abuse, including sexual exploitation.
As a result of the 2020 Artsakh War, tens of thousands of children have been temporarily or irrevocably displaced from their permanent places of residence. They become vulnerable, often also easily accessible for sexual abuse and exploitation.
The Lanzarote Convention
In the context of these challenges, in 2020, Armenia ratified the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse, which sparked a wave of heated debate and speculation in both the public and professional communities.
The Convention is a crucial and comprehensive document for the improvement of the international legal framework for combating sexual violence against children, which completes a number of international documents that have been ratified by Armenia, and play an important role in this sphere, such as:
- the UN Convention on the Right of the Child,
- the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography,
- the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict,
- the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption,
- the ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor,
- the European Social Charter (Revised),
- the CoE Convention on Cybercrime, and
- the CoE Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings.
However, the CoE Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Violence is the first international treaty dedicated specifically to the protection of children from sexual violence. Adopted in Lanzarote, Spain in 2007, it entered into force in 2010 and has been signed by all Council of Europe Member States. Armenia signed the Convention in 2010, but ratified it quite recently, in 2020, and it entered into force on January 1, 2021. This legal document is also called the Lanzarote Convention.
It is the most up-to-date and comprehensive international legal document on the fight against child sexual exploitation and sexual violence. It provides the definition of child sexual abuse, and also defines new types of crimes, which are conditioned by the development of information and communication technologies and tourism.
The Convention is based on the “4 Ps approach” (prevention, protection, prosecution and promotion), which aim to prevent sexual exploitation and sexual violence, to protect children who have been sexually exploited and sexually abused, to prosecute criminals and to promote international cooperation in this area. The Lanzarote Convention sets out a number of preventative measures that are obligatory for the ratifying parties, which include training and raising the awareness of those working with children; raising awareness among children of the risks of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse and the available mechanisms to protect themselves; implementation of awareness-raising, and preventive intervention programs in large sections of society or measures aimed at criminals and potential criminals. Offences covered by the Lanzarote Convention reflect the minimum consensus, meaning that establishing higher standards within a certain State’s domestic legal framework is encouraged. This kind of harmonization has multiple benefits in combating crimes against children at the national and international levels.
Thus, it is important for the state to take the necessary measures to effectively combat sexual violence against children through international treaties and domestic structures.