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End of mission statement of the UN Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, on her visit to the Dominican Republic (8-15 May 2017)

Santo Domingo, 15 May 2017

Good afternoon and thank you for coming.

I would like to thank the Government of the Dominican Republic for the invitation extended to me to undertake a visit to the country from the 8th to the 15th of May 2017. This is the first visit of an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor, report and advise on issues related to the sale and sexual exploitation of children. It is also the first visit to the country by a UN independent expert since 2007. Based on the positive experience of my visit, I hope that it will open the door for other UN independent experts to follow, which could be based on a standing invitation to the UN special procedures system, in order to enhance the promotion and protection of all human rights through sharing of good practices, in particular in the Latin American and Caribbean region, and a dialogue with all stakeholders.

The objective of my visit was to assess the scope of sale and sexual exploitation of children in the country as well as the measures adopted by the authorities to prevent and combat this scourge, and their role in the care, recovery and reintegration of child victims.

During my eight day visit I have met with multiple stakeholders, including children, in Santo Domingo, Dajabón, Puerto Plata, Sosúa, Santiago and Boca Chica. I met with representatives of the Ministry of the Presidency, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Labour, the National Council for Children and Adolescents (CONANI), the Social Protection Programme led by the Vice-Presidency (PROSOLI), the Attorney General, judges of the Supreme Court of Justice and of the Appellate Court for children, representatives of the National Police and the Specialised Body of Tourist Security (CESTUR), members of Congress, the Ombudsperson, representatives of religious and faith-based organisations, child rights and protection NGOs, children in vulnerable situations and children victim of neglect and abuse. I also had meetings with the UN Country Team and representatives of Embassies, and with the private sector, including the president of the Association of Hotels and Tourism of the Dominican Republic (ASONAHORES), the President of the ICT Chamber and private Internet Service Providers.

At the provincial and local level, I met with the Governors of Dajabón and Puerto Plata, representatives of the Migration Directorate, police and CESTUR, local representatives of the Ministry of Tourism, CONANI, prosecutors of the special jurisdiction for children and family, specialised prosecutors against trafficking in persons, representatives of the travel and tourism sector, members of local councils (“juntas locales”) and municipal directories (“directorios locales”) as well as child protection NGOs.

I also visited a transit centre for children (“Hogar de Paso”) run by CONANI in Santiago, and a residential institution for children run by an NGO in Boca Chica.

I am grateful to the Government for the open collaboration both before and during the visit. To everyone who met with me, I want to express my gratitude for their readiness to engage in an open dialogue on the issue of sale and sexual exploitation of children in the country, and for their willingness to find solutions to end this scourge and to provide protection and assistance to child victims and children at risk of sale, abuse and exploitation. I also wish to express my gratitude to the UN Country Team for their support and assistance.

Before I proceed with the preliminary observations and recommendations on my visit to the Dominican Republic, I would like to clarify that this is the first time that I am addressing the media since my arrival in the country. Therefore, statements that have been attributed to me by the press in the course of my visit are completely false - in this regard I refer to the article published by “El Caribe” on the 14th of May signed by Agencia AP. Hence, I would expect those concerned to issue the corresponding correction.

Positive steps and developments

The Dominican Republic has made considerable progress in a number of areas which have had a positive impact on the rights and protection of children. One of such areas is the fight against overall poverty and extreme poverty, which have considerably decreased in recent years thanks to specific social protection interventions. While I commend the Government of the Dominican Republic for its achievements in this regard, I encourage it to continue on this positive path by enhancing efforts to tackle the increase in the overall vulnerability of families. I also encourage the Government to enhance efforts to ensure that the economic growth that the country has experienced in the last twenty years is inclusive and that access to opportunities is ensured to those who are most in need.

Another area in which the Dominican Republic has made major progress is in education. Thanks to a considerable increase in the budgetary allocation and effective investment of resources (from 2,7% to 4% of the GDP in the last five years), the right to education of children has been expanded. A particular success story is the programme of the extended school hours (“jornada extendida”), from 8am to 4pm, which has had a positive impact in reducing the presence of children on the streets, and therefore their exposure to risks of abuse and exploitation. The programme of extended school hours has also ensured that children have at least two meals per day, hence positively impacting on their rights to food and health.

The other positive development I would like to highlight is the efforts made by the Government to reduce the extremely negative consequences that the ruling of the Constitutional Court of 23 September 2013 has had on the rights of tens of thousands of people of Haitian descent, including children. Let me put it clearly: this ruling contravenes international legal obligations of the Dominican Republic on the basis of international norms and standards. Faced with this major setback in the human rights record and reputation of the country, I would like to acknowledge/commend – as recently done by the UN Secretary-General Mr. António Guterres - the efforts made by the Government to address the situation of those affected by the ruling of the Constitutional Court. In particular, the adoption of Law 169-14 has mitigated partly the consequences of the ruling of the Constitutional Court. I encourage the Government of the Dominican Republic to continue to adopt the necessary measures to implement Law 169-14, ensuring that all people concerned, including children, are issued nationality documents, and to guarantee the access to education and health of the affected children and their protection from all forms of discrimination, among others.

Other positive measures, which are directly linked to my mandate, are the incipient promising efforts to combat trafficking and online sexual abuse an exploitation of children deployed by the specialised units of the Attorney General’s Office against trafficking and High Technology Crimes. The specialized mandates, capacity and resources of these special prosecution units is leading to convictions of sexual abusers and exploiters of children, ensuring their accountability in hotspots such as Puerto Plata. I commend the leadership shown by the Attorney General’s Office in combatting the impunity for these crimes, including by setting up an innovative prevention office within its office, and I encourage him to increase the support to these units. Another positive step is the implementation of child-sensitive measures in the justice proceedings such as the recording of interviews of children, which are conducted by psychologists in child-friendly interview rooms. This measure is essential to avoid the re-victimization of child victims while preserving evidence to ensure convictions in court.

However, despite these positive steps and developments, the scope of sale, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children in the Dominican Republic is an issue of grave concern which requires a concerted response as a matter of urgency. Let me say it clearly: I have been appalled by the numerous forms and cases of sale, exploitation and abuse of children that have been brought to my attention, some of which I have been able to witness during my visit this week. For the purpose of this press conference, I will highlight three areas of utmost concern due to their extensive scope and symptomatic nature, namely child marriage, sexual abuse of children within the family, and sexual exploitation of children in tourism.

Child marriage

Child marriage - namely any marriage where at least one of the parties is under 18 years of age - is an extended practice in the country, and affects mostly girls. According to some studies, the Dominican Republic (together with Nicaragua) has the highest rate of child marriage in the Latin American and Caribbean region. Most of my interlocutors have recounted examples of child marriages, both formal and informal, and their wide acceptance, particularly in rural and poor areas. I have heard numerous cases of adult males who seek girl spouses (who are 10 years or more younger than the men) in these areas and remunerate or compensate families in exchange of the girls. This practice constitutes sale and must be prohibited and punished as such.  

Child marriage in the Dominican Republic is a gendered crime which violates multiple rights of the girl child, including the right to education, health, and development. In addition, child marriage is closely linked to teenage pregnancies. Indeed, the country has an alarmingly high rate of teen and child pregnancies, which are often both the cause and result of sexual abuse. Child marriage in the Dominican Republic has been linked to early sexualisation, the pressure exercised on girls to get pregnant at a young age, violence within the family, and the consideration of marriage as a way out of poverty and the emancipation of women and girls.

Today, the country has a unique opportunity to combat this scourge in the context of the current reform process of the Civil Code, which dates back to the XIX century. Indeed, the Commission of Justice of Congress is currently discussing the reform of the articles concerning child marriage. Consequently, I strongly urge Congress to seize this historic opportunity to establish the absolute prohibition of child marriage, without any exceptions, as a means to combat this discriminatory practice against the girl child and to bring the country to the XXI century by complying with international human rights norms and standards in this regard. The legislative reform should be accompanied by strategic interventions such as awareness-raising campaigns targeted at families, local communities, religious leaders and children themselves, as well as among local authorities, law enforcement, prosecutors and judiciary to ensure implementation of the law.

Sexual abuse of children within the family

Another rampant phenomenon in the country is the scourge of sexual abuse and violence against children within the family. These crimes have often been linked to poverty, dysfunctional families, lack of education and awareness-raising of positive child-rearing responsibilities, among others. The lack of official statistics concerning these phenomena can be attributed in part to the absence of child-friendly reporting and complaint mechanisms such as an easily accessible free 24/7 hotline with qualified personnel. I have also noted the lack of awareness-raising and training of teachers, educators and social workers to enable them to detect, report and refer cases of child sexual abuse. Moreover, the country does not have specialised child care centres to assist victims of child sexual abuse and exploitation.

Various child protection NGOs at the local level are making strides to address these gaps by leading child protection networks with the involvement of CESTUR, prosecutors of the special jurisdiction of children, and educators. While these efforts to prevent, detect, refer and assist victims of cases of child sexual abuse must be welcomed and commended, they rely heavily on the personal commitment of those involved and the financial support of international donors. This demonstrates the urgent need for the active leadership and multi-sectoral support of relevant State actors, in particular through CONANI, in order to create strong, comprehensive and effective child protection systems at the local level, with the protection and assistance of children in vulnerable situations and child victims as the paramount goal.

Sexual exploitation of children in tourism

The tourist industry is one of the main income generating sectors and the engine of the economy of the country. The incomparable beaches of the Dominican Republic have attracted 6 million tourists this year, and the State has set the target of reaching 10 million tourists by 2022. While the majority of tourists come to the Dominican Republic to enjoy the beauty of the country and engage in family-oriented tourism, there is a considerable number of tourists who take advantage of the vulnerable situation of women and children in the country. These individuals fuel, feed and benefit from so-called sex-tourism, which includes sexual exploitation of girls and boys.

Although there is no official data on the scope of this lucrative criminal activity which is punishable by law, it is known to everyone - and I have seen it with my own eyes – that sexual exploitation of children occurs in various beach locations of the country. Sosúa, Cabarete and Boca Chica are just a few examples where local populations and committed actors are struggling to prevent and combat this scourge - though they often feel alone. The most striking aspect of this revolting phenomenon is that it is visible and well-known but very little is done to combat and eradicate it. The pressure and blame is often put on the families of these children, while the demand side, namely the perpetrators who sexually abuse and exploit children, act with complete impunity. These perpetrators, the direct demand, are most often males from Western countries, aged 50 and above. Perpetrators also include intermediaries such as local pimps, taxi and motorcycle drivers, owners of private apartments, small informal hotels and bars. Furthermore, criminal networks are able to operate due to the often complicit behaviour of those who are supposed to report the cases and enforce the law.

Representatives of the travel and tourism private sector firmly believe that such criminal tourism has a major negative impact on the business and the reputation of the country. In this context, high representatives of ASONAHORES and its provincial branches have stated to me that they stand ready to join forces together with the Government, and in particular the Ministry of Tourism, to develop comprehensive initiatives to effectively prevent, report and combat sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism. Many of the hotels and tour operators of ASONAHORES have signed the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism - an industry-driven, multi-stakeholder initiative which seeks to increase protection of children through training of personnel to detect and report cases, among others.

However, prevention efforts will only be effective if they are part of a comprehensive strategy which is actively led by the Government through its Ministry of Tourism. Indeed, the Ministry of Tourism must acknowledge the urgency of tackling the phenomena by placing prevention at the core of its strategic plan on tourism. In this regard, the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Ministry of Tourism together with UNICEF and ASONAHORES in 2013 to prevent and combat sexual exploitation of children in tourism – which was unfortunately never launched - constitutes a good basis to take action through the leadership of the Ministry of Tourism. In addition, such prevention efforts must include and be supported by countries of origin of the current and potential perpetrators, most of which come from Western and North American countries as well as others. The prevention strategy of the Ministry of Tourism must also involve CONANI as another key stakeholder, which should replicate and strengthen good practices and promising initiatives already implemented by local child protection networks such as the ones in Boca Chica and Sosúa.

Other issues of concern

There are other issues of concern that must be addressed by the State such as the situation of children living and/or working on the street, labour exploitation of children in agriculture, domestic work and sports (e.g. professional baseball academies), and intercountry adoptions of children which are not compliant with international norms and standards, including the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption.  
In respect to children in street situations, most of them are of Haitian descent and undocumented, which increases their vulnerability to abuse and exploitation, in particular at locations around the border. Consequently I call on the national authorities to facilitate their registration and documentation and to ensure their access to education, health and protection. Furthermore, according to international human rights norms and standards, their protection remains the responsibility of the State and its child protection institution – namely CONANI. Therefore these children cannot be deported without proper identification, assessment and tracing of their families through formal processes and channels. I call on the Government of the Dominican Republic to uphold this international legal obligation and to explore avenues to increase coordination in this regard with relevant authorities from Haiti.

Measures to combat child sexual abuse and exploitation in the Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic has adopted numerous legislative, institutional and policy measures to protect children from the scourge of violence, abuse and exploitation. This has resulted in a relatively robust legal framework, which includes the Constitution of 2010, Law No. 136-03 on the Code for the Child Protection System and the Fundamental Rights of Children, Law No. 137-03 on the Illicit Trafficking of Immigrants and Smuggling of Persons, and the Law No. 53-07 on Crimes and Offences of High Technology.

In addition, the Dominican Republic has adopted a myriad of national plans such as the National Plan to Eradicate Abuse and Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children 2006-2016, the National Strategy on Prevention of Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism 2014-2016, the Roadmap for a Dominican Republic Free of Child Labour and its Worst Forms, the National Roadmap to Prevent and Eliminate Violence against Children 2015-2018, the National Plan of Action against the Smuggling of Persons and Illicit Trafficking of Migrants 2009-2014, and Public Policy Guidelines for Children in Street Situations 2007-2012.

Regrettably, all these policy documents are not having a major impact on the prevention and protection of children from sale, abuse and exploitation because of lack of implementation. This is partly due to the weaknesses of the national institution in charge of child protection, namely CONANI. Indeed, CONANI lacks the necessary leadership to develop and strengthen an effective child protection system with prevention and protection at its core. Its role seems to be limited to managing transit child care centres and launching sporadic awareness-raising campaigns.

If the Government of the Dominican Republic wants to take seriously the combat of sale and sexual exploitation of children in the country, it needs to send a clear signal which translates into action at the local level. In this context, I recommend the following actions to achieve a robust national child protection system:

  • Strengthen the leadership of CONANI in the design, coordination and implementation of policies for effective child protection;
  • Empower the National Directory of CONANI – namely the body established by law to advise the Executive on child rights issues, to coordinate all child-centred programmes, and ensure the proper operation of child protection mechanisms – and ensure that it meets regularly;
  • Enhance coordination between CONANI, the Vice-Presidency and the Attorney General’s Office;
  • Use the National Roadmap to Prevent and Eliminate Violence against Children 2015-2018 as the guiding policy document to prevent and protect children, and adopt monitoring, evaluation and inter-institutional coordination and accountability mechanisms for its effective implementation, including at the local level;
  • Increase the budgetary allocation for the national child protection system to enhance, among others, support for the establishment and strengthening of local council and municipal directories in charge of implementing the child protection system at the local level. Adopt standard operational protocols, goals and indicators to guide and monitor their activities.

Other recommendations to effectively prevent and combat the sale and sexual exploitation of children and provide care and recovery to child victims:

  • Collect and analyse reliable disaggregated data on the different forms of abuse, violence, exploitation and sale of children, and conduct comprehensive research on the scope of the phenomenon in order to inform effective prevention and protection policies and interventions;
  • Reform the Civil Code to introduce the absolute prohibition of child marriage without exceptions;
  • Establish child-friendly complaint and reporting mechanisms, including helplines, which are free and easily accessible to children, including undocumented children;
  • Prioritise the adoption of alternative child care measures such as the placement in foster care for child victims of neglect and abandonment and children placed in institutions;
  • Ensure that adoptions, including intercountry adoptions, are processed in the best interests of the child (instead of responding to the demand of prospective adoptive parents) and respect the principle of subsidiarity and the prohibition of improper financial gain;
  • Adopt a comprehensive and child-rights centred care, recovery and reintegration programme for child victims of sexual abuse and exploitation, with child care centres that offer multidisciplinary specialised support and follow-up, including in the long-term; ensure that services provided by non-governmental institution in residential facilities for children comply with quality standards and child-rights compliant protocols;
  • Adopt the necessary measures, including training, supervisory and accountability mechanisms, to ensure that the National Police is seriously and pro-actively engaged in investigating child sexual abuse and exploitation cases, including by allocating adequate resources;
  • Enhance the role of CESTUR in the protection of children from all forms of sexual abuse and exploitation by tourists, increasing their numbers, training and resources;
  • Ensure the  accountability of perpetrators by enhancing support and increasing means of the specialised prosecution units to combat child sexual abuse and exploitation online and offline;
  • Ensure the implementation of the National Strategy for Cyber-security incorporating child prevention and protection as a priority goal, including through education programmes and awareness-raising campaigns on risks associated to new technologies and safe internet usage; enhance inter-institutional coordination among PEDATEC, DICAT, CONANI and the judiciary, and engage the private sector (e.g. ICTs) through the pro-active coordination and leadership of INDOTEL; 
  • Encourage the Ministry of Tourism to take the lead in preventing the sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism through the effective regulation of all commercial activities of the sector, by inter alia conducting prevention campaigns to raise awareness among tourists and communities;
  • Take appropriate measures to develop the Ombudsperson into an independent human rights institution in line with the Paris Principles, with a specific unit devoted to monitoring, protecting and promoting the rights of the child.

Sexual abuse and exploitation of children are crimes – we all know and agree on that. It’s time to move to action to make sure that the Dominican Republic becomes a country free of this scourge. It is the primary responsibility of the national authorities to combat it with the support of the entire population.

Thank you for your attention,