It was the late 1980s. The World War II had been over for just four decades. The world was starting to come out of its horrified daze from the destruction caused. Their Border controls for many countries around the world, which has been very tight during the war and shortly after, had started to loosen. People began traveling to different countries for pleasure once again. Most importantly they began traveling even further towards Asia, which only came to the notice most common people during the Second World War. Tourism began flourishing.
In the meantime, in the shadows of all the happiness and relief to be alive, criminals began to ply their trades. The higher controls and laws amongst the Western world after the war, made them even more aware of the lack of controls in the mostly naive Asian countries. Many criminal enterprises relocated to the Asian subcontinent and began to deal in drugs, sex, and illegal trades. Unfortunately, the weakest and vulnerable of the local communities fell prey to them. The victims included youth, women and (worst of all) very young children. These criminals targeted the incoming waves of tourists for their operations.
As tourism flourished in Asia, the tourists arrived with various purposes. While some visited the countries with the hopes of seeing a new lifestyle, and the marvels of the native culture and history; there were many who came with the thought of taking advantage of the criminal enterprises that had taken root there. Taking note of their intent, many local criminals too began catering to the illegal whims of the tourists – selling them drugs obtained from illegal means, priceless antiques stolen from their temples and museums, and children who had been trafficked from rural communities for the sex trade.
In 1988, the Ecumenical Coalition on Third World Tourism (ECTWT – formed in 1981 by three Christian organizations in response to churches and activists who took note of the rising child prostitution and expressed concern) realized that there was a strong interconnection between the growth of tourism in Asian countries, and the increasing numbers of children undergoing child sexual abuse and exploitation there. They wished to investigate it further and a research was planned to be conducted in Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand for two years from mid 1988 to 1990.
It was in this manner that the ECTWT Research Team Lead, June Rogers, met two key people who would change the history of child protection in Sri Lanka. In June 1988, she commissioned Shirley J S Peiris, who was the General Secretary of the National Christian Council, and Maureen Seneviratne, who was an investigative journalist and volunteer social worker, to conduct the research on the Sri Lankan end. The research mandate mentioned that they would have to collect data and document the effect of the tourism related sex industry that was becoming increasingly visible; and its effects on children, their families and the wider local communities.
One month after receiving their assignment, Shirley and Maureen were invited to a meeting in Bangkok, for all the stakeholders of the research, convened by the ECTWT Executive Secretary Dr Koson Srisang. There, they were further briefed on the situation and the dangers that children in Asia were facing. As such, they discussed and helped lay down the guidelines for the research. It also served as an excellent opportunity for Shirley and Maureen to get to know their counterparts from Philippines and Thailand.
On their return to Sri Lanka, the very first thing that Shirley did was to select two local child rights activists – Mohammed Mahuruf, who was working at Terre des Hommes at the time, and Manel Nanayakkara from YWCA – to form a working group. The group combed the brothels, entertainment centers, beaches, resorts, and many other tourism-centric locations for evidence of child sexual exploitation. It was a difficult task, for those were the times with the Sri Lankan Civil War occurring in full force in the northern part of the country, and a riot started by a political party – Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) – happening in the Southern region. The working group faced much suspicion, resistance and outright hostility. However they persevered.
What they found shocked them. The group discovered that Sri Lankan children were being blatantly sold for sex by their parents, neighbors, and a number of criminal organizations. While it was very much visible, the local communities turned a blind eye to the happenings or even treated the victims – the children – as shameful and disgusting criminals who brought shame to their families or communities. Faced with hostility and humiliation from all sides, these children lost their will to live – either killing themselves or letting a haze of drugs and abuse overtake them.
The two years leading to the end of the research was a very busy period. In 1989, the working group travelled to attend a mid-term consultation organized by the ECTWT Research Team for all three working groups. It was then that the monstrous extent of the problem, which was even more larger and multidimensional than expected, began to be seen.
The preliminary findings provided by the groups were turned into a 10 page statement and submitted by the project’s co-consultant Sudarat Srisang at the United Nations Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. There she stressed the need for an international campaign to stop the slavery of children through tourism. As a result of her suggestion, a conference to disseminate the findings amongst a wider audience was planned.
In preparation for the conference, the Sri Lankan working group finalized their research study and submitted the first draft of the report in March 1990. From the 1st to the 5th May 1990, the conference took place in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand under the name, ‘Caught in Modern Slavery – An Ecumenical Consultation on Tourism and Child Prostitution’. Sri Lanka were allotted 7 spaces for their delegates. Therefore, the originally 4-person working group, added a carefully selected 5th member to their team of presenters. This person was Faith Abeyawardene from Redd Barna. In addition, they also invited Padma Ranasinghe – Commissioner of Probation and Childcare Services in Sri Lanka, and Leon Berenger – a well-known journalist, to the conference in order to create a better understanding amongst the government and the public.
The conference, that was held in a very simple YMCA auditorium in Chiang Mai, was attended by concerned social workers from various organizations and faith based groups from a number of countries, as well as the national working groups for the research from Thailand, Philippines and Sri Lanka. Represented among the 63 attendees were participants from Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Japan, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Switzerland, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.
The five Sri Lankan members (including Faith) of the working group made their presentations, explaining the situation in Sri Lanka. Maureen, in particular, caught the attention of the audience when she expressed extreme shame and outrage over the atrocities committed against the children of Sri Lanka. The severity of the crimes being committed against these children were effectively brought to heart by the Sri Lankan working group, and appalled the participants due to the magnitude of children being lured, sold or trafficked into prostitution.
As a result of these presentations by all three working groups, the participants of the consultation resolved to launch an international campaign to stop child abuse and child sex tourism. A three member core team, consisting of Dr. Koson Srisang, Rev. Ron O’Grady, and Ms Sudarat Serewat-Srisang, was appointed to carry out the implementation of the campaign. Representatives from the three Asian countries, where the research was conducted, as well as some of the other countries to be part of the Steering Committee and spearhead the campaign in their country. Maureen Seneviratne, from the Sri Lankan Team, was nominated as a member of the committee.
The Steering Committee and the core team also had its first Executive Meeting, and as a result the ECPAT – End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism – network was born.
At the end of the consultation the working group returned to Sri Lanka triumphantly. It was a great success for them, as they had been able to create a heavy impact on the participants of the event using their research findings and presentations. As a Sri Lankan governmental representative had also been present, they too were much more enlightened about the situation and the fact that Sri Lanka was not alone in facing this crisis. However, there was still a long way to go before the working group received full support to end these child crimes.
On their return the group actively became engaged in the initial stages of implementing the ECPAT campaign locally. They had several talks and discussions with the local child rights non-profits, activists, and a number of other organizations. After explaining the research findings and the outcome of the consultation in Chiang Mai, many of those who they spoke to expressed interest in joining with the campaign. As a result a Core Committee was formed to be the executive arm of the campaign.
Shirley Peiris also suggested that they come up with an individual name for the Sri Lankan end of the ECPAT campaign. He suggested the name PEaCE, which would expand to Protecting Environment and Children Everywhere. The name, in spirit, meant to express the campaigns interest in creating a protective environment everywhere in Sri Lanka where children could be safe and happy. The acronym was selected in such a way to show the need for peace and equal rights offered for all children at a time when the country was immersed in civil war. As such the name received high praise and unanimous approval from the Core Committee.
The Core Committee decided to use the same logo for PEaCE that the international ECPAT campaign was using. The logo was a broken lotus bud, a symbol of the fragility of a child victim of sexual violence.
The main focus of the PEaCE campaign was discussed among the committee members and then clearly stated to be the preventive aspect of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC), with specific focus on the Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism (SECTT).
As the initial working group put their plans into place and attempted to implement the campaign, they ran into several roadblocks. With the already inherent hostility and resistance amongst the community to accept that child sexual abuse was prevalent in Sri Lanka, the campaign faced difficulties in getting people involved in its initiatives due to a lack of official documentation.
Therefore, the Core Committee for PEaCE decided to register the campaign as a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) of Sri Lanka. PEaCE was registered in mid 1991 as an NGO under the Voluntary Social Services Act No 31 created in 1980 as part of the Sri Lankan company governance laws. Maureen Seneviratne was registered as the first Founder/Chairman, while Shirley Peiris was assigned as the Secretary and Mohammed Mahuruf became the Treasurer for the Executive Committee of the organization.
Time passed. The work of PEaCE was a continuous uphill struggle. But the occasional bursts of success, like treasure found on a tough mountain climb, made it all worth it.
PEaCE members visited tourism-centric locations such as beaches, hotels, and holiday hotspots like Nuwara Eliya and Anuradhapura. They went to slums and rural communities. The took the time to do programs in schools and villages. And everywhere they went they spread awareness about the dangers that children face when they undergo child sexual exploitation. ‘Let them enjoy our country, not our children’, they told the people.
The organization had to face irate tourism workers who felt that admitting to the crimes that were being committed right under their nose was shameful. There were also those who were directly involved in child sexual exploitation themselves, and realized that their time of reckoning was close. They tried to cover it up by flying into a rage when PEaCE came over to do awareness programs, or by creating false rumors about PEaCE’s veracity. Some of law enforcement officers, themselves, were aware of the child crimes that were occurring, but ignored the for the sake of the ‘tourism growth’ or because they had no idea what to do about it.
Some of the poorest community members who lived in filthy slums and in dilapidated clapboard huts on beaches, were selling their children to tourists for money. This was a way of life for them. The few tens of dollars that it brought them, along with the occasional luxury goods that the children received from their abusers as ‘hush money’, was way above what they could ever dream of earning using normal avenues and the crude skills that they had. Normal meetings and programs were never going to work on them.
So PEaCE organized more persuasive programs for them. In one instance they selected a group of mothers from beach communities. Many of these women were covered in filth and worked as prostitutes. PEaCE gave them a small cake of soap and told them that they would get more benefits if they came to a meeting tomorrow after washing themselves with the soap. At the meeting, these women were given free food and given some basic advice for them and their children to lead a healthier life. A rewards system was also established. They would be given tasks such as giving baths to their children and bringing them to the next meeting, implementing a specific child protection advice at home, reporting any child sexual exploitation incidents to PEaCE etc. These tasks had specific home necessities as rewards, things like soap, rice, vegetables, clothes etc. In this manner, the women willingly learnt to protect their children from commercial child sexual exploitation. They also became one of PEaCE’s strongest advocating forces amongst the beach communities.
In a more hostile instance, PEaCE conducted a program for important tourism personnel alongside a foreign tourism organization. At that time PEaCE mentioned the enormity of the situation that was affecting Sri Lanka, and gave some of the statistics of children being abused in Tourism. The day after the event, the PEaCE office was visited by the Tourism Police who arrested the Chairman, Mohammed Mahuruf, on claims of slander. However, as all the statistics were fully proven and none of them were false, they were unable to make their claim stick and released him the next day. After that, the Tourism Ministry realized that they had a serious problem with child sexual exploitation on their hands and were more supportive of the actions taken by PEaCE.
These were just some of the trials that PEaCE faced and pushed through. The full amount of hardships are only known to the founding members who turned a country that had no solid laws against child abuse, and huge willful blindness towards crimes against children; into what it is today with stronger laws and awareness.
In 2010, Maureen Seneviratne retired from her position as Chairperson; and Mohammed Mahuruf, the youngest of the Founders, became the new Chairman in November 2010. Immediately after taking his position he did a restructuring of the organization to make it more cost-effective and organized. He also introduced a low paper-use policy for environmental protection.
As the ECPAT logo of a broken lotus bud had been changed to the logo of a child holding a flower, the PEaCE logo too lost its connection to the original. Therefore, in 2016 the Chairman decided to redo the logo, and the new PEaCE logo was that of two children being protected in a circle made by two hands – showing the concept of PEaCE as a child protection organization.
In the meantime, the other Founders of PEaCE (who had already been middle aged or older at the time of the creation of the organization), passed away between the years of 2010 to 2018, leaving the current Chairman as the sole surviving founder.
In mid 2018, PEaCE underwent a massive growth from 8 full-time staff members to double that amount, due to the new nationwide PEaCE project.
Today the organization continues to do many programs to raise awareness against child sexual abuse and exploitation and change Sri Lanka’s Child Protection mechanisms for the better.