On 10 March 2023, ECPAT and PPSEAWA hosted an online event dedicated the voices of child survivors of sexual exploitation to better understand “their personal lived experiences with disclosure, their engagement with law enforcement mechanisms, the criminal justice process and with social services”. Snow White O. Smelser, who currently serves as a UNODC child safety advisor, shared the following during the event.
Warm greetings from Thailand. Thank you, ECPAT and PPSEAWA, for honoring the voices of survivors of child sexual exploitation. This platform brings hope to child survivors who don’t have the opportunity or the courage to speak for themselves … or whose voices get muted.
Sadly, some victims of sexual exploitation and abuse do not survive and thrive. To cope with the deep trauma, many fall into long-term antisocial behavior, like alcoholism and drug addiction. Some can’t cope so commit suicide.
I myself survived child sexual abuse from the ages of 6 to 9. I was a shy, angelic child, loved by all my teachers, and my parents taught me to “do as you’re told (by adults)”. I didn’t understand what my uncle was doing to me until I learned in school about abuse in its different forms. I then felt so guilty and dirty and cursed with sexiness. He threatened to kill my mother if I told anyone. It was hard to focus on maintaining good grades in school when my mind and heart were suffering. I attempted suicide when I was 9. As I waited for the fatal end to occur, I remember suddenly changing my mind. I realized that I didn’t want my mom to suffer with the heartbreak of losing me. Luckily, my suicide attempt failed – but I suffered psychologically and emotionally in fear of boys and men until my late teenage years. At 16, I decided that my abuser would no longer have power over my emotions and my life.
In the 1990s, emailing and surfing the Internet became common practice in my university. I loved technology and its benefits. I studied web design and development and began my career in the tech industry building websites for local companies. I was in Friendster and MySpace. I searched for my abuser online back then, but I didn’t find him in those online platforms. I was free from him, and I was thriving.
In 2007, I was unexpectedly hired by the Royal Thai Police’s specialist division on crimes against women and children as their in-house translator. To help me learn the necessary Thai technical language, the police introduced me to ECPAT resources in English and in Thai. (I have loved ECPAT ever since!)
I remember when the Thai police arrested the swirly-face Canadian man wanted by INTERPOL for sexually abusing children in Thailand. I sat in the room with the suspect, quietly trembling in fear as childhood memories came flooding back. I kept my adverse childhood experience a secret even when I joined the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Bangkok to work on a project specifically on transnational child sex offenders. My experience gave me a special perspective when observing the efforts made and not made to protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse.
Disclosing our traumatic experience of sexual abuse is a tremendously difficult feat. We’ve already been vulnerable, exploited, and wounded by the abusers. Are we brave enough to face the heartbreak when the people we trust enough to disclose this violation to just dismiss us with their disbelief and denial? It hurts to open up and hear, “you were just having bad dreams”, “I didn’t see him do that to you”, “you’re just making up stories”. I have heard worse reactions from untrained police officers and even the mothers as they blamed the children for inciting the abuse. We need to provide a safe space for child victims to be heard and show them our efforts of seeking appropriate help.
Now, as a UNODC advisor on child sexual exploitation and abuse online and offline, I am blessed to be working with the brilliant and passionate Ending Violence against Children team, led by Alexandra Martins in Vienna. No more keeping the secret. This time I told my new team and our lovely UK Government donor that I myself am a child survivor. I told them if my abuse had happened in this digital age and crossed-over online, I would not be alive right now. They embraced my disclosure with empathy, and we all are driven to make real-life impact in honor of child survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse online and offline. We are partnering with child-centered NGOs, including ECPAT, on something that has not been tried before. Something that may rock the online and offline worlds.
In conclusion, victims become survivors when we can overcome the impact of abuse and live without fear. With love and support, we can be like lotus flowers that start off in the mud, reach for the sky, and blossom into beautiful adults. Thank you, Dr. Raj, for encouraging me to share my story. Thank you all for providing this platform to acknowledge and share the voices of child survivors around the world. It means more to us than my words can say.