Australia’s efforts to end child sexual abuse – are we leading or lagging?

  • Prevention
  • Research
  • Victims & Survivors
by Professor Andrea de Silva, Dr Amanda Robertson, Dr Leanne Beagley and Alisa Hall

The National Centre’s vision is a future without child sexual abuse.

To realise this vision, we looked internationally to see what action we should be taking in Australia. We wanted to know if Australia is leading or lagging behind international standards. Are we on track to end child sexual abuse or heading in the wrong direction?

The global targets articulated in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a useful starting point. The 17 SDGs provide a coordinated framework for action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity. Goal 5: Gender Equity and Goal 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions relate directly to child sexual abuse, noting that child sexual abuse is a highly gendered problem with Australian girls 2.4 times more likely to be sexually abused than boys.

SDGs, targets and indicators directly related to child sexual abuse

Goal 5: GENDER EQUITY

Target 5.2: Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation

  • Indicator 5.2.1: Percentage of ever-partnered women and girls (aged 15 years and older) subjected to physical, sexual or psychological violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months
  • Indicator 5.2.2: Women and girls aged 15 and older subjected to sexual violence by persons other than an intimate partner in the previous 12 months

Target 5.3: Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation

  • Indicator 5.3.1: Proportion of women aged 20-24 years who were married or in a union before age 15 and before age 18

Goal 16: PEACE, JUSTICE AND STRONG INSTITUTIONS

Target 16.2: End abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children

  • Indicator 16.2.2: Number of victims of human trafficking per 100,000 population, by sex, age and form of exploitation
  • Indicator 16.2.3: Proportion of young women and men aged 18–29 years who experienced sexual violence by age 18

The 2023 SDG Report has Australia ranked 40 out of 166, with an overall assessment of ‘Limited Progress’ against the 17 Goals and an average score of 75.9 (below the regional average of 77.8). Trends against Goal 5 are assessed as ‘Challenges Remain; Moderately Improving’ and Goal 16 ‘Challenges Remain; Stagnating’. Adding to this poor report card, a closer look at the indicators reveals the targets related to child sexual abuse (SDG targets 5.2, 5.3 and 16.2) are not even reported on. Not by Australia and not internationally.

A major barrier to ending child sexual abuse is the invisibility of the issue. The lack of reporting on these indicators perpetuates this invisibility. We don’t know who is taking action on these global targets or who is measuring performance against them.

Is Australia actively addressing these SDG 2030 targets nationally?

We checked three important national strategies related to ending child sexual abuse in Australia for reference to the 2030 SDG targets: The National Plan to end violence against women and their children; Safe and Supported: the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2021–2031; and the National Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Child Sexual Abuse 2021-2030. We could not find any such reference.

While this doesn’t mean Australia is not taking action or making progress in relation to child sexual abuse, it indicates that we are not explicitly linking our actions to, and monitoring progress against these important global standards and targets.

What could we find to assess Australia’s global standing on action to address child sexual abuse?

An important assessment of global action on child sexual abuse is the Out of the Shadows Index, designed and developed by Economist Impact. This Index is the first global benchmarking of how countries are addressing child sexual exploitation and abuse and provides a comparative assessment of actions in 60 countries—including Australia.

“…it serves as a tool to illustrate how countries are attempting to prevent and respond to the issue at a national level, highlighting areas for advancement as governments seek to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include a target (16.2) to end all forms of violence against children by 2030.”

In 2022, Australia was well-placed globally, ranked 7th out of 60 countries with an overall score of 71.8. However, there were critical areas across both prevention and response where Australia lags behind compared to other countries.

Prevention efforts lagging

  1. Protective legislation: Incorporating international conventions/standards, rights of the child, and age of consent, laws against child sexual exploitation and abuse, offender-focused legislation, laws supporting victims and survivors, jurisdiction-specific legislation, including prostitution/sexual trafficking of minors, unambiguous definitions, and setting the minimum age of criminal responsibility for a sexual offence to an age of at least 14 years (as recommended by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child).
  2. Policies and programs: Including services for offenders, programs combating harmful norms (specifically related to LGBTQIA+, and racial and ethnic minority groups), and a national plan to end sexual exploitation in travel and tourism.
  3. National capacity and commitment, capacity of the judicial system in relation to being child-friendly, trauma-informed, and having a sound understanding of sexual abuse

Response efforts lagging

  1. Public access to data on child sexual exploitation and abuse cases and prevalence data. In 2022 Australia lacked accurate and current data on prevalence of child sexual abuse and criminal justice system data, including arrests, indictments, attrition and convictions. The lack of data means civil society is at a disadvantage in monitoring and advocating for improvements.
  2. Support services and recovery for victims and survivors: Availability of initial response services and reporting services, data on long term supports such as help-seeking and receipt of services, and interagency coordination of social and justice services.

What needs to be done?

We conservatively estimate that in Australia today there are at least 6 million child sexual abuse victims and survivors – and the problem is not diminishing. At the same time, child sexual abuse also continues to grow as a transnational crime. Added to this, Australia ranks a low 32nd out of 38 OECD countries on child wellbeing, and Australian children’s rights continue to be violated at an alarming rate, with insufficient protections in place.

The National Centre calls on governments to increase efforts in the areas of protective legislation, a justice system that understands and responds to children with informed approaches, and investment in producing and sharing detailed data on the incidence, prevalence and responses to child sexual abuse and its impacts across the lifespan.

We must bolster our endeavours to protect children’s rights and meet the global challenge of ending all forms of violence against children by 2030. The sexual abuse of children is a global crisis and Australia’s current efforts are just not good enough.

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Understanding child sexual abuse

Preventing repeat child exploitation material offending: An international evaluation of the CEM-COPE Program
Conceptualising and Estimating the Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation (Phase One of Australian Study into Economic Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation)
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
Enhancing the capability of Australia’s Primary Health Workforce to respond to child sexual abuse
CHANGE – curtailing harm and navigating growth: evidence for change pathways of young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Amplifying the voices of victim-survivors: Advancing the harmful sexual behaviour evidence base – the Ava project
Reshaping the Conversation: Development of a shared language and preferred definitions guide endorsed by victims and survivors of child sexual abuse
Building a knowledge frame for responding to the needs of children and young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Children and Young People’s Safety Project
Child safe practices using contextual safeguarding strategies
The more I talk, the stronger I get: unlocking our past to free our future
Delivering trauma-informed support for child sexual abuse victims in Victoria: mapping the knowledge gaps and training needs of the specialist sectors
Online child sexual victimisation and associated mental health outcomes
Differentiating adverse childhood experience profiles of male youths who exhibit harmful sexual behaviours

Response to child sexual abuse

Preventing repeat child exploitation material offending: An international evaluation of the CEM-COPE Program
Evaluation of the Multi-Agency Investigation & Support Team
Conceptualising and Estimating the Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation (Phase One of Australian Study into Economic Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation)
Effect of multi-agency deliberation on perceptions of risk in responses to child abuse and neglect
The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
CHANGE – curtailing harm and navigating growth: evidence for change pathways of young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Improving legal, policy and practice responses to the intersection of domestic violence perpetration and child sexual abuse offending
Into the war zone: disclosure and disbelief in the Family Court
Understanding the experiences of child sexual abuse disclosure in Australia in the wake of the Royal Commission
Building trauma-responsive sexual health and relationship education
Learning from victims and survivors about what helps disclosure and responses to child sexual abuse
Amplifying the voices of victim-survivors: Advancing the harmful sexual behaviour evidence base – the Ava project
The dignity by design project: survivor-led system redesign
Evaluating a harmful sexual behaviour education program in a residential care setting
Community as experts: investigating the context, needs and help-seeking pathways for child sexual abuse survivors and their supporters in the NSW Bega Valley
Developing and implementing a framework for abuse prevention through culture change and organisational development
Reshaping the Conversation: Development of a shared language and preferred definitions guide endorsed by victims and survivors of child sexual abuse
Building a knowledge frame for responding to the needs of children and young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Australian Child Maltreatment Study
Children and Young People’s Safety Project
Child safe practices using contextual safeguarding strategies
Enhancing the capacity of rural and regional respectful relationship educators
Strengthening relationships and connections for young people in therapeutic residential care
The safeguarding capability of adults in Catholic Church ministries: a global perspective
Creating safer futures: raising public awareness of child sexual abuse among young adults through digital storytelling
Survivor perspectives on institutional use of child sexual abuse material
The more I talk, the stronger I get: unlocking our past to free our future
Delivering trauma-informed support for child sexual abuse victims in Victoria: mapping the knowledge gaps and training needs of the specialist sectors
Online child sexual victimisation and associated mental health outcomes
Differentiating adverse childhood experience profiles of male youths who exhibit harmful sexual behaviours

Needs of victims and survivors

Evaluation of the Multi-Agency Investigation & Support Team
The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
Enhancing the capability of Australia’s Primary Health Workforce to respond to child sexual abuse
Improving legal, policy and practice responses to the intersection of domestic violence perpetration and child sexual abuse offending
Into the war zone: disclosure and disbelief in the Family Court
Understanding the experiences of child sexual abuse disclosure in Australia in the wake of the Royal Commission
Building trauma-responsive sexual health and relationship education
Learning from victims and survivors about what helps disclosure and responses to child sexual abuse
Amplifying the voices of victim-survivors: Advancing the harmful sexual behaviour evidence base – the Ava project
The dignity by design project: survivor-led system redesign
Supporting continuous quality improvement in safeguarding at Hockey Australia and other national sporting organisations
Evaluating a harmful sexual behaviour education program in a residential care setting
Community as experts: investigating the context, needs and help-seeking pathways for child sexual abuse survivors and their supporters in the NSW Bega Valley
Enhancing the capacity of rural and regional respectful relationship educators
Creating safer futures: raising public awareness of child sexual abuse among young adults through digital storytelling
Survivor perspectives on institutional use of child sexual abuse material
The more I talk, the stronger I get: unlocking our past to free our future

Prevention of child sexual abuse

Preventing repeat child exploitation material offending: An international evaluation of the CEM-COPE Program
Conceptualising and Estimating the Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation (Phase One of Australian Study into Economic Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation)
The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
CHANGE – curtailing harm and navigating growth: evidence for change pathways of young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Evaluating a harmful sexual behaviour education program in a residential care setting
Developing and implementing a framework for abuse prevention through culture change and organisational development
Building a knowledge frame for responding to the needs of children and young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Australian Child Maltreatment Study
Strengthening relationships and connections for young people in therapeutic residential care
Differentiating adverse childhood experience profiles of male youths who exhibit harmful sexual behaviours

Identification of child sexual abuse

The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
Enhancing the capability of Australia’s Primary Health Workforce to respond to child sexual abuse
Supporting continuous quality improvement in safeguarding at Hockey Australia and other national sporting organisations
Evaluating a harmful sexual behaviour education program in a residential care setting
Developing and implementing a framework for abuse prevention through culture change and organisational development
Children and Young People’s Safety Project
The safeguarding capability of adults in Catholic Church ministries: a global perspective

Disclosure of child sexual abuse

The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
Enhancing the capability of Australia’s Primary Health Workforce to respond to child sexual abuse
Improving legal, policy and practice responses to the intersection of domestic violence perpetration and child sexual abuse offending
Into the war zone: disclosure and disbelief in the Family Court
Understanding the experiences of child sexual abuse disclosure in Australia in the wake of the Royal Commission
Learning from victims and survivors about what helps disclosure and responses to child sexual abuse
Supporting continuous quality improvement in safeguarding at Hockey Australia and other national sporting organisations
Community as experts: investigating the context, needs and help-seeking pathways for child sexual abuse survivors and their supporters in the NSW Bega Valley