The United Kingdom is the safest place to be a child, while Pakistan is the least safe. That’s according to a new index that ranks 40 countries on how well they’re responding to the threat of sexual abuse and exploitation against children.

According to the report called Out of the Shadows by The Economist Intelligence Unit and the World Childhood Foundation, the 40 countries in the index represent 70 percent of the world’s children.

The countries were ranked according to their environment in which child sexual violence occurs and is addressed, their legal framework to protect children, their government commitment and capacity to invest in appropriate responses as well as the engagement of industry, civil society and media in combating the issue.

The index aims to help countries track progress toward the second target of Sustainable Development Goal 16 – to “end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against, and torture of, children” by 2030.

“With approximately 200 million of the world’s children experiencing sexual violence each year, the need to document and benchmark the global effort to prevent child sexual violence has never been more important,” Sweden’s Princess Madeleine, co-founder of the World Childhood Foundation’s #EyesWideOpen campaign, said in a press release.

With a score of 100 representing the best environment for children, the top ten countries on the index were all high-income: U.K. (82.7), Sweden (81.5), Canada (75.3), Australia (74.9), United States (73.7), Germany (73.1), South Korea (71.6), Italy (69.7), France (65.2) and Japan (63.8). Brazil ranks next and is classified by the World Bank as upper-middle income.

Credit: Out of the Shadows report

However, the report notes that the prevalence of child sexual abuse and exploitation is not tied to a country’s income level. Several some high- and middle-income countries made it into the bottom quartile of the index – including China, Argentina and Russia – and only three of the top ten countries received a score of at least 75. The report says that this means there are still “substantial gaps in the protective conditions for children in even the wealthiest countries.”

In fact, another recent report on trafficking by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime found that while most trafficking victims are detected in their own countries, wealthy countries more likely to be destinations for cross-border trafficking victims from geographically diverse origins.

The UN report notes that “globally, countries are detecting and reporting more victims, and are convicting more traffickers.” This could point to better detection of victims, an uptick in trafficking victims or both.

Although the UN report looks at all forms of trafficking, it says that sexual exploitation continues to be the most detected form of trafficking. In most regions, women are more commonly detected as victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation, but in Central America and the Caribbean, more girls are identified as the victims.

However, the Out of the Shadows report points out that trafficking comprises only a small minority of child sexual abuse and exploitation cases. It also found that boys are being overlooked as victims. Only 17 of the 40 countries are collecting prevalence data about boys, and only five collect data on boys regarding sexual exploitation specifically.

Additionally, 26 of the 40 countries have designated law enforcement agencies to fight child sexual exploitation, but only eight have a dedicated budget. This lack of resource allocation – as well as the increasingly online nature of exploitation – makes it harder to tackle both national and transnational offenses.

Credit: Out of the Shadows report

“There is a lot of talk about international collaboration, but it is not systematic or deeply entrenched,” John Carr, expert adviser to the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, said in the Out of the Shadows report.

However, the UN report notes that trafficking is rooted in exploitation not movement, and for the first time, trafficking victims detected within their own borders now make up the largest portion of detected victims globally. This highlights the need to make exploitation a higher criminal justice priority within countries, the report says.

Strengthening legislation is another important way to at least detect abuse and exploitation victims. Out of the Shadows reports that only 25 of the 40 countries it looked at has laws that requires people working with children to report cases of sexual abuse. And sexually touching a minor is explicitly banned in only 21 of them.

The UN trafficking report found that in many countries, an increase in detected victims was preceded by the introduction of a new anti-trafficking measure, suggesting that the upswing correlated more with an increased capacity to identify victims and not an actual increase in trafficking. However, in countries that have had anti-trafficking frameworks for a long time but have not introduced any new legislative reforms or programs, more detections likely means there are actually more victims.

Still, detecting victims of sexual abuse and exploitation is a hugely important step toward tackling the issue. Although both reports indicate that significant progress is being made – and that resource constraints do not necessarily inhibit it – major gaps persist.

“The countries where there is most risk is where we have the least information on the issue,” Paul Stanfield, the director of organized and emerging crime at INTERPOL said in the Out of the Shadows report. “We have to find ways of better understanding the threat.”

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