HPC Fellow: James Eckford, ECPAT International

James Eckford is a current Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow with ECPAT International, the only international NGO network solely dedicated to the fight against the sexual exploitation of children around the world. In his blog, James reflects upon the mission of ECPAT, human dignity, sustainable development, and his work.

Human Rights: A Question of Dignity and Economic Equality
By James Eckford

As I neared the end of my bachelor’s degree in International Relations and faced the dilemma of choosing a thesis topic, I found myself instinctively disregarding the high-profile and glamorous subject of international diplomacy and instead focused on the gritty and deeply frustrating world of human rights. Making this decision was not a practical or logical choice, the field of human rights is famously exclusive and highly competitive. I thus decided to work abroad, learn some languages and save up for a masters’ degree.

This journey abroad further fueled my passion. Living in Beijing for three years, I gained a practical and visceral experience in human rights. One that turned my perspectives and ideology upside down. In China, the very term “human rights” is taboo. To claim a right from the government is to declare they are not doing their job, and it is not the duty of the citizen to tell the government how to do their job. In human rights, we strive to fight for those who have no voice, but what of those who have a voice, face injustice, but choose not to use it?

This fundamental question drove me to write my thesis on pollution protesting in China and examine the possibility of a human rights consciousness emerging in Chinese society. Could smog be the phenomenon that pushes Chinese people to realize that they can preserve their dignity in the face of government repression? Dignity is a universal concept, yet deeply subjective. The threshold for loss of dignity in China may be higher than that in the west, but it exists.

Surprisingly, this abstract question of human dignity would be relevant to the subject of my internship: sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism. Do child victims of sexual exploitation see themselves as victims or rights holders? The core problem of this particular manifestation of sexual exploitation of children (SEC) is economic inequality; tourism allows two vastly separate worlds to collide. The introduction of wealth via tourists into poor spaces creates an inevitable tension of disparity that is conducive to exploitation.

While the tourist finds themselves in an apparently poorly governed and culturally alien environment, the family of the child or even the child themselves has found an opportunity to earn well above the average salary. What qualifies this as exploitation is the innocence of the child, their lack of control or autonomy, and complete surrender of humanity and dignity. The economic and social conditions that have resulted from distant historical events led to this exchange; those events, far beyond the world of the exploiter and exploited, have affected millions of children around the world for generations. Only just recently is the world waking up to the horrific injustices borne by the nexus of gender and income inequality. The #MeToo movement has enlightened much of the western world to the dangers of victim blaming, challenging previously accepted norms and paradigms that caused silent suffering.

Even though mindsets seem to be slowly evolving for the better, how do we solve injustices brought about by economic inequality? It’s a question that begs such a large structural adjustment of the global economy and markets that it seems insurmountable, however, the rhetoric of sustainable development promises change. It seeks to essentially adjust the language of capitalism from growth-based targets to sustainable ones in order to address profit-based decisions which end up having adverse effects on communities and populations.

ECPAT’s ambitious strategy to fight the sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism (SECTT) is to take both the sustainable development and corporate social responsibility route because the private sector is used to facilitate sexual violence against children. The private sector’s role cannot be understated. I strongly believe that awareness campaigns and child protection policies can make a difference in deterring SECTT. While there is no typical offender, a large proportion of offenders are in fact situational, it is the perception of tolerance, acceptability, impunity, and power imbalance that spurs them to sexually exploit children, rather than an inherent attraction to children. This means that collaborative action between the private sector, governments, NGOs, and law enforcement can be effective in reducing SECTT around the world; situational offenders are unlikely to commit this crime if they respect the laws and society of their destination as much as their source country.

Besides the subject itself, ECPAT taught me many things about working in an NGO: the constant struggle for funding, diplomacy with governments, collaboration with other NGOs, engagement with the public, and project management. It was finally a chance to see how everything I learned in my master’s degree could be put into practice, as well as to see things that are never taught in the classroom, such as procurement, budget approvals, and concept notes.

My next step is to build a career that fights trafficking and exploitation on a wider scale, both labor and sexual, both adults and children. Above all I want to fight for the rights of those whom society extends the least sympathy.

About The Hilton Prize Coalition

The  Hilton Prize Coalition  is an independent alliance of the 22 winners of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, working together to achieve collective impact. Through three signature programs—the  Fellows Program, the  Collaborative Models Program  and the  Storytelling Program—the Coalition leverages the resources, talents and expertise of each of its members to innovate and establish best practices that can be shared with the global NGO and donor communities. Working in more than 170 countries, the Coalition is governed by a board comprised of the leaders of the Prize-winning organizations led by an Executive Committee and a Secretariat,  Global Impact.

To learn more about the Hilton Prize Coalition, visit  prizecoalition.charity.org, or contact  prizecoalition@charity.org. Follow  the Hilton Prize Coalition on  Twitter and  LinkedIn, and “Like” us on Facebook.

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