„¡La Muralla soy yo!”

Together against sexual exploitation of children in Cartagena
Antje Monshausen

“La Muralla”, Cartagena’s colonial firewall, surrounds the old town of the Caribbean metropolis in the north of Colombia. Cartagena is a world heritage site and attracts hundred thousands of tourists every year. The Spanish used the wall in the 16th century in order to protect what was of value to them: gold and other natural resources. Nowadays, “La Muralla” stands for a unique strategy enforced by the city’s protagonist – civil society, tourism associations, hotels, beach vendors, taxi drivers, parasol renters, youth organizations, schools, police and prosecution – to protect what is the most important to them: the girls and boys of their town. They all shout out proudly: “¡La Muralla soy yo!” “The wall - that’s me!”

Cartagena is the most important touristic hotspot in Colombia, it is home to the biggest industry harbor and at the same time a site of crass inequalities and extremes. Along the coast, skyscrapers are rising into the sky, the old town is beautifully restored - but on the streets the less fortunate population of Cartagena and other parts of the country as well as refugees from Venezuela are looking for a better future – among them are many children.

In 1996, the non-governmental organization “Fundacion Renacer / ECPAT Colombia“ began to conduct research on the issue of sexual exploitation of children and youths in the port town. It revealed that many children are affected by violence and neglect in families, organized crime, sexualized violence and drug trafficking. It also became visible that seafarers from cargo vessels and tourists from within and outside the country constitute a particular danger for the children. For them, it was not difficult to exchange attention, clothes or money for sex with children. For a long time, the tourism industry ignored the issue as well as the majors, who were rarely in office for more than a year and focused on prestige projects instead of long-term strategies regarding child protection.

Integration of the informal, complementary tourism sector

In 2008, Fundacion Renacer started with the project “¡La Muralla soy yo!” a holistic child protection strategy. From the very beginning, especially taxi drivers were targeted as they are represented in all parts of the city and are in close and regular contact with visitors. Today, 1.300 of 12.000 taxi drivers have undergone a 2hours training. They are sensitized and prepared on how to report potentially suspicious observations. Over time street vendors, masseurs, and parasol renters were trained as well. But how do you reach those people in the informal sector, who work hard each and every day in order to make a living, but have no cantinas, staff rooms or let alone work meetings. Together with the University of Cartagena, Renacer developed a 120 hours diploma course which offers practical and relevant contents for the traders. The curriculum includes sales and negotiation strategies, legal advice as well as language courses. In all of theses courses the issue of child protection was included. Due to these courses, 71 people received a fruitful education. Many of them are still important multipliers for more child protection.

Such as the married couple Reinaldo and Nayibi, who sell towels and jewellery to tourists by the beach, or Victor, who rents out sunshades. Victor proudly states that he already identified and reported six offenders. Since visiting the university course Reinaldo and Nayibi are engaged in their own neighborhood and also go to other districts churches and explain that sexual exploitation of children is an abuse of God’s commandments. “I am thankful that Renacer took us, the vendors of the informal sector, into consideration and saw us as partners and not obstacles in child protection”, says Renaildo.

Presence in every corner of the town

Today, Renaildo and Nayibi are sitting next to Amaury Tatis, one out of five tourism police officers in Cartagena specialized on child protection. To him it is of particular value, that many actors of the city work together in raising awareness for the issue. “Prevention is of utmost importance, because once the damage is done to the children there is no way to undo it. We have to be present and build trust, because only then street vendors, taxi drivers and receptionists in hotels will report suspected cases to us.” And indeed: Within the first half of 2018 almost 80 suspected cases have been brought in relation to sexual exploitation of minors, many of the offenders are now facing a trial. This is also due to reports from poorer districts, says the responsible persecutor who is supported by ten specialized investigators. All over the  city Renacer has educated social workers and teachers in schools, and directly worked with hundreds of young people. “We now know that we have rights and no one can take them from us”, says a 17-year old female student, who is currently participating in a school training to become a mentor for child protection and attempts to raise awareness amongst younger children. A fellow student adds that it was especially important for him to get to know how to recognize any sexual initiation in real life situations and online in order to defend oneself. Renacer also offers courses for parents. Some of the participants have come together and established a permanent parents-network, which is present everywhere in the city and sensitizes other parents. Last year the network won the city’s child protection competition.

Strict rules regarding the implementation of the international Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation

What about hotels and restaurants? Within the last ten years, after some early skepticism, 112 businesses in Cartagena have signed the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Tourism and comply with it. “It was very important for us to understand that children and youths working in prostitution are not only making easy money, but instead they are victims of human rights abuses and sexualized violence”, says one human resources manager in a hotel. All 112 hotels, restaurants and bus companies are participating in mandatory 3 day trainings and develop action plans regarding communication and awareness rising. At least 90% of all employees have to take part and new employees have to complete at least an online training before signing a work contract. The implementation and compliance is checked by Renacer in non-announced visits. In additions, the tourism police may also visit the hotels and is engaged in motivating further implementation of the Code. For them, the Code represents an important tool to achieve the national regulation of sustainable tourism. If they identify any deficits in the hotels, they highly recommend to implement the Code in assistance with Renacer.

“We achieved a lot in Cartagena, but we have to tighten our measures in order that no child becomes a victim of sexual exploitation”, says the tourism association of Cartagena who is one of the key actors at “¡La Murella soy yo!”. The new found “Roundtable on the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation of Children in Tourism”, where persecution, police, migration authorities, tourism industry and civil society come together, is now heading towards the important step of institutionalization. “¡La Murella soy yo!” is not only a project or a campaign, it is a permanent strategy of the city in which all actors work together tightly and trust one another”, says Humberto Padilla Martinez from Renacer.

Cartagena – a role model not only for Colombia

Still, Cartagena holds the image of being the capital of sex tourism in Colombia - and indeed, it is right that children are still exposed to tremendous risks and are still sexually abused. Yet today, the city is also the national champion regarding the reporting of suspected cases and related detentions.

Colombia is currently one of the top five fastest growing tourism destinations. Tourism is booming not only in the mainstream tourism hotspots, but also within the former conflict zones, where there are no attempts regarding child protection, yet. But Colombia is also the country with the most signatory parties of the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism. Additionally, the country has a regulation for responsible tourism and a national destination certification scheme in which child protection is a central concern. Thus, hosting the International Summit on Child Protection in Travel and Tourism from the 6th – 7th of June 2018 together with ECPAT International, UNICEF, Fundacion Renacer and others was the logical next step for the Colombian government. More that 400 representatives from civil society, governmental agencies and the tourism industry met and exchanged ideas on new challenges and strategies. A “call for action” is now addressing more international efforts of all actors as the growth of tourism globally may also cause more children to potentially become victims of sexual exploitation in the context of tourism. Cartagena can serve as a role model, which others will follow. The case of “¡La Murella soy yo!”  shows that political will and common efforts could establish a firewall to guarantee that less children are becoming victims of sexual exploitation.

Translation from German into English: Nicole Goldmann

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