Guest Post – Aarti Kapoor, Program Manager of Project Childhood Prevention Pillar.
You know the situation well. You arrive in a new place, whether a remote village or a popular urban tourist site, and suddenly you notice the children. They confidently approach you, sometimes in groups, selling chewing gum or fruit or simply holding out a plastic beaker for your coins, begging. It is confronting to see both their tenacity and their poverty in the same moment. It is so difficult to know how to respond to these situations, particularly when you are unprepared. I have been there too, many times.
Project Childhood Prevention Pillar takes a Child Safe Tourism approach in preventing the sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism. As Program Manager, I feel privileged to have the opportunity to work towards a better future for children. My own journey to Child Safe Tourism has been one that combines both my personal interest in travelling, as well as my ongoing professional learning in child protection. The following is one particular snapshot of this journey.
A few years ago while travelling in Asia, my travel partner and I decided to take a camel ride and stay overnight in the desert. We were to journey through a remote village to meet and be greeted by the local people. The tour operators advised us to take sweets for the local children. Instead we opted for little toys, thinking that might be better for their teeth.
We travelled with two tour guides and their camels. A few hours after setting out, the village came into view – some simple huts congregated around a larger one. It seemed quiet and small. As we approached the village a large group of children came running towards us. We alighted the camels and our guides tied them up. The children ran excitedly towards us and without hesitation took our hands and started curiously feeling our clothes whilst loudly calling and staring at us in wonderment. Soon I started to feel uncomfortable, as the children became increasingly animated, each vying for attention. There were so many of them that I was surrounded. As one girl put her hands into my pockets another began tugging at my bracelet and bangles. A third child lifted the bottoms of my trousers to check out the anklets I had bought in town. Before long they started asking us for money, for my bracelet and for my anklets. We were relieved to see some of the village women hastily running up towards us, hoping they might bring some order to the chaos that had greeted us so far. But to our chagrin they just stood back, watched and encouraged the children to continue. I felt overwhelmed.
This is when it struck me. There had clearly been many visitors to this village before and these children had been strongly impacted. They and the adults had started seeing tourists as instant gift bearers, whether it was money, jewellery or other possessions they might agree to part with.
Not being able to control the situation we became despairingly agitated. We clumsily handed our toy bags to one of the tour guides, assuming he would be better able to handle the torrent of hands, faces and pleas than us. The children ran towards him and started snatching the toys out of his hands. Suddenly one of the children pushed to the front and grabbed the whole bag. One of the women quickly caught him, snatched the bag from his hands and then turned on her heel and fled as fast as her legs could carry her back towards the village. We stared at her in disbelief until she reached a hut and disappeared into it, with a few children trailing behind her, leaving only mists of dust. We stood frozen and fixated. The remaining women uttered a few words and the children started dispersing. Although we only stayed on for about 30 more minutes, this experience had had a profound impact on me.
The risks and vulnerabilities to these girls and boys, as well as to their community, were stark. Even if the majority of visitors were respectful and polite, there are always some who could take advantage of the situation. As a child, my mother instilled in me the notion of not accepting gifts from strangers as a protective mechanism against harm, including sexual abuse. So what was I doing encouraging children to accept gifts from me? What cultural norms was I trampling over and were these new habits in the best interests of these girls and boys? Surely there was a better way to contribute our tourist dollar towards supporting these children sustainably, rather than put them at increased risk to abuse including sexual abuse by encouraging them to trust strangers. It was clear that the village, as a community, needed to be better involved.
I suggested to the tour guides that in the future travellers should not be encouraged to give gifts directly to the children and instead they could give responsibly to a central village committee or another such community-based institution. These gifts could contribute towards a school, clinic or other village infrastructure for the children that they saw fit. They immediately liked the idea, recognising this could have a much better impact on the village. I realised the deep concern the guides also held for the children and the local community. They were seeing this scenario unfold in front of their very eyes but yet had been unsure about what to do about it. They committed to discussing it both with their tour operator, as well as with the village chief.
As tourists and travellers, the insights we gain into the lives of others is a privilege. As the global travelling community reaches 1 billion people, we have an important part to play in ensuring that the impact we have, even as individuals, is as positive as possible to the communities that welcome us. Please join our journey and make a pledge today to become a Child Safe Traveller.