Founder and President, OneChild
Fellow project website:www.onechild.ca
Cheryl is enabling young people, including survivors of sexual exploitation, to develop and deliver self-empowerment programs, policies, and educational curricula. By betting on young people to disrupt the sexual exploitation of children, Cheryl builds these children’s resilience to protect their rights and inspires adults to follow their lead.
THE NEW IDEA
Cheryl Perera and her organization, OneChild, is educating and preparing the youth to lead a movement that disrupts child sex slavery and advocates institutional reform against human trafficking. Cheryl believes that because the sexual exploitation of children (SEC) represents one of the worst violations against the rights of the child, young people themselves are uniquely poised to take a stand on the front lines for their own rights. Cheryl enables the self-assertion of young people by providing a foundation of knowledge and tools for them to directly interrupt—through public education campaigns, targeted advocacy initiatives, and fundraising—the global sex trade’s supply and demand.
As the world’s first youth-led organization focused on ending the sexual exploitation of their fellow youth, OneChild shifts the narrative around child protection efforts by positioning young people at the forefront of advancing solutions. Instead of the standard “doom and gloom” approach that focuses on the vulnerability of children in these trafficking systems, Cheryl sees the problem as an opportunity to catalyze youth leadership; Cheryl helps young people see the world around them in a different way, one in which they have an important role in the fight against this sexual exploitation and have a seat at the decision-making table in transforming themselves and their world.
OneChild’s approach is empowering a movement of children and youth to take action against child sex slavery through preventative education, survivor empowerment, and advocacy and mobilization for institutional reform and policy change. It begins with a peer-to-peer based education model that provides powerful preventive education. This education disrupts the sex trafficking pipeline by informing young people of the actual ways (including online) that traffickers lure children into sex slavery.
Through workshops, motivational talks, and social media outreach—all designed and delivered by young people —children learn how to protect themselves and their peers from sexual exploitation. At the same time, they learn the hard facts about the global child sex trade and the insidious ways in which the most vulnerable children become victims of human traffickers. This closes the knowledge gap and inspires students to take action. Motivated youth are engaged to receive changemaker training, where they obtain fact sheets and toolkits for both in-person and digital action campaigns to run at their schools or other events. These programs have had great success and have swept across high schools and elementary schools throughout Canada, especially in the largest province, Ontario, where the national rates of child trafficking are the highest in the country.
Cheryl undergirds her conversations with young people by drawing on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In particular, she draws on Article 34, which claims that “all children are granted the rights to be protected from all forms of sexual exploitation,” and Article 12, which states that children have “the right to give their opinion, and for adults to listen and take it seriously.” By emphasizing to young people their rights to demand and take action, Cheryl enables them to see themselves as social and political actors with creativity, intelligence, and technical savvy who can help determine solutions, even in the face of closed doors and adults’ resistance. Cheryl’s aim is a world that regularly incorporates youth and children, including survivors, into mainstream discussions on the development of legislation, policies, and programs to fight, disrupt, and ultimately end child sex slavery. To accompany this shift in mindset, OneChild provides practical opportunities for young people to discover their power through education, advocacy, survivor care, and empowerment.
Informed of their rights and power to lead change, young people want to take action, and part of OneChild’s work is to support them in leading public action campaigns (both in-person and digital) in their schools, communities, and nationally. One national campaign involved bringing OneChild’s message to the travel and tourism sector of Canada. In Cheryl’s conversations with law enforcement officials working on sex trafficking, she realized that a major part of the trafficking of children involved individuals (including Canadian citizens) traveling to foreign countries for the purposes of sexually abusing children. She also learned that some European airlines were showing videos to passengers alerting them to the problem and signs of child sex trafficking. Cheryl and her co-leaders decided to ask Canada’s national airline, Air Canada, to join the fight. Cheryl lacked a budget and film equipment, but since she knew— from the awareness-raising she had done in schools—that she had strength in numbers, she circulated a petition calling on Air Canada to act and with young people at the center. The petition received thousands of signatures. So, Cheryl and her team went to Air Canada’s corporate headquarters and convinced the company to take this youth-led action, making the company the first in Canada to address the issue of SEC in travel and tourism. Over 22 million people saw the videos that Cheryl and her “club of kids” made. But the impact didn’t end there, as Air Canada went on to implement mandatory training for their flight attendants, joined with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in flying trafficking survivors to their homes after rescue, and influenced other airlines (WestJet and Air Transat) to join the campaign. Air Canada then teamed with OneChild as a co-leader of the first-ever national campaign aimed at ending sex trafficking in the travel and tourism industry, a campaign that involved such partners as airports, travel agencies, tour operators, police, governments, consulates, and embassies. Young people both initiated and led all this work, including three major national train-ings led specifically by trained children from OneChild.
Cheryl’s unique approach to disrupting and ending child sex slavery centers around catalyzing a social movement in which young people take advantage of what Cheryl calls, “the most powerful time in their lives.” Although she and OneChild are focused on eliminating the sexual exploitation of children, Cheryl encourages young people—in her workshops, trainings, and organizing—to follow their own passions and to address the social and environmental problems that matter most to them, whether that is LGBTQIA rights, climate change, world hunger, or women’s rights. By modeling ways of getting informed and building leadership capacity, Cheryl and OneChild help youth understand that they don’t have to wait to be powerful contributors to solving problems. Cheryl believes that young people have special powers to get the attention of adults, including perseverance and stubbornness: “If we speak up, people will listen.”
Through a variety of global partnerships with groups working directly with survivors—like the Philippines’ PREDA Foundation—Cheryl facilitates ways for young people to actively take part in supporting survivors’ recovery and ultimately their empowerment. OneChild has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars which have supported the direct intervention in the lives of survivors and supported them in becoming leaders in the movement themselves.
To date, OneChild has impacted close to 100,000 lives in 11 countries. OneChild also offers a competitive opportunity for 10 young people each year to join their Youth Advisory Squad (YAS). These young people receive in-depth mentorship and coaching in public speaking, advocacy, and fundraising, as well as scholarship money. Through the YAS, OneChild constantly renews its youth leadership, reinvigorates its model, and creates a self-sustaining movement.
The sexual exploitation of children includes the sale and sex trafficking of children, online child sexual exploitation, and the sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism. Children in all countries are at risk of trafficking and forced prostitution, as well as online dangers such as grooming, sextortion, and proliferation of child sexual abuse videos and images, and these forms often overlap. While sexual abuse can happen to anyone, certain groups of children are more at risk. Statistics Canada (2016) has documented that First Nation, Inuit, and Mé-tis women and girls, youth in foster care, runaway and homeless youth, persons with disabilities, children with mental illness, lonely individuals, refugees and migrants, and LGBTQIA persons are the most vulnerable.
While the scale of the problem is difficult to establish because of its clandestine nature and the fact that victims are often too frightened to report, a 2014 report from the Canadian Medical Association Journal showed that 10% of the population (corresponding to some 3.6 million Canadians) reported having experienced sexual abuse before they were 16 years old. 2018 law enforcement statistics indicate that most of the victims were women and girls (97%). They were trafficked predominantly for sexual exploitation purposes. Around half (45%) of these victims were between the ages of 18 and 24 and 28% were under the age of 18.
The sexual exploitation of children has lifelong and devastating effects. In Sri Lanka, where Cheryl first encountered the harsh realities of the sex trade firsthand, perpetrators were forcing the victims, with whom she spoke, to have sex up to 26 times a day. In the case of online sexual exploitation, a child can potentially become re-victimized millions of times—every time another person watches, sends or receives an image or video. Children can experience trauma from both contact and non-contact sexual abuse, and these effects can become generational if left untreated.
Long-term impacts on survivors include substance de-pendency and addiction; mental illness; prolonged feelings of guilt, shame, and anger; hypersexualization; unwanted pregnancy; sexually transmitted diseases; trauma bonds and Stockholm syndrome; self-esteem issues; fistulas and other health issues; and suicidal tendencies.
OneChild helps children and youth understand that there is no cookie-cutter definition or profile of a child sex perpetrator or a human trafficker—they could be any age, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. The perpetrators might be pedophiles or perpetrators completely unknown to the victim, though most demand for SEC comes from individuals who children know and trust—these individuals identify and leverage their victims’ vulnerabilities to create dependency.
At the same time, Statistics Canada (2018) has identified that four in five persons accused of human trafficking from 2009-2018 have been men. 35% of Canadian sex traffickers or pimps were between 18 and 24 years old and 31% were 25 to 34 years. Expanding access to the Internet, mobile technology, and cheap travel makes this crime easier to commit; it has never been easier for perpetrators to contact children, share images and videos of the abuse, hide the profits, and carry out these criminal acts anonymously. In Canada, Ontario is the province with the vast majority of cases. SEC occurs at schools, parties, coffee shops, and malls, and social media platforms have now become hunting grounds, where someone often plays the role of a “Romeo” pimp to lure victims. Juvenile recruiters often receive the job of bringing in more minors.
Historically, the world has largely tackled this problem through the prosecution of perpetrators and the protection of survivors. This response includes disrupting criminal networks, holding criminals accountable, and securing justice for survivors through amendments to the legal system. The protection of children who have become victims of SEC largely includes palliative services for survivors, which stops survivors from becoming future abusers as well. While these interventions are critical, the lack of robust, youth-centered prevention tactics weakens the fight against SEC.
Although there have been many isolated prevention efforts, such as government and citizen sector awareness campaigns, they have mostly failed to reach the people 92 | ASHOKA 2022 most impacted: Children and youth. When these prevention efforts do reach children, they are often based on a framework of “protection,” which views children as helpless and needing supervision and assistance from adults. As long as society is organized this way, children only really have the option to “snitch” to the police or other adults about what they see among friends. These tactics fail to appreciate that young people themselves are the experts of their own experience and are in the most powerful position possible to protect themselves and their peers.
Canadian and U.S. schools, Ms. Perera says that she and her team have helped to educate some 35,000 young people on issues around child sexual exploitation, a crime whose underground nature makes it difficult to assess.
The Wall Street Journal
During her three-and-a-half-month trip to Sri Lanka, 17-year-old Cheryl was exposed to the hidden reality of the child sex exploitation industry. What further shocked her was the fact that citizens from her birth country, Canada, were tourists perpetrating the problem. Upon her return home to Toronto, Cheryl wanted to share with other children what she had seen, heard, and experienced. She traveled from school to school, presenting to thousands of students, and was met with motivated youth who were devastated to learn of the exploitation of their peers and wanted to be a part of the solution. Looking to engage these students, Cheryl reached out to established citizen sector organizations, explaining that she was a teenager with an army of teenagers eager to help. However, Cheryl’s emails went largely unanswered. She grew frustrated with witnessing what felt like a waste of youth passion, intelligence, expertise, creativity, and talent on this critical issue.
In 2005 and at 19 years old, Cheryl, together with her family and friends, founded OneChild to empower a youth-led movement against SEC through education, advocacy, and empowerment. She incubated OneChild in her family home; her mother cooked for volunteers, and Cheryl and her mother worked multiple jobs to donate to their own citizen organization. OneChild’s primary access point for youth was, and continues to be, through classroom-based workshops and motivational speeches at school assemblies. OneChild engages young people through child – and youth-friendly educational work-shops, activist training, toolkits, action campaigns, and youth events and conferences. Through these forums, young people learn how to look out for each other and themselves and thus eliminate the supply of potential victims of the SEC.
OneChild covers themes such as recruitment tactics and vulnerable demographics, as well as root contributors to child exploitation, such as mental health, gender in-equity, social constructs, and media representation. The presentations and workshops also include topics of well-being, healthy relationships, and finding self-worth, as well as toxic masculinity and the objectification of women. OneChild partners with ARISE Ministry, as well as the Ontario Provincial Police, to provide trauma counselors at every session. By 2021, OneChild’s prevention education had reached just over 36,000 youth in 230 schools. Cheryl designed these speeches and workshops to make it easy to get in front of young people, with the potential to have a long-lasting impact. Her 2021 survey data indicates that following OneChild’s presentations, 89.9% of students claim that they now know how to spot a victim of SEC, 88.3% of students say that they now recognize the warning signs of SEC, and 55.8% of students feel prepared to take action against this issue.
While building broad awareness amongst youth through school outreach programs, OneChild nurtures its Youth Advisory Squad. This includes a group of extra passionate young people who demonstrate a need and/or desire to be an agent of change on the topic. These young people undergo activist training with OneChild and serve as speakers for the organization. They are equipped to close the knowledge gap with other stakeholders such as parents, teachers, social workers, corporations, and policymakers.
OneChild facilitates opportunities for young people to participate in policy dialogues to call for more effective ASHOKA 2022 child protection policies. Most recently, in 2021, Cheryl launched a campaign with Canadian known survivor, Tamia Nagy, to rally tween brands in a new pledge that committed them to not using sexualized images as part of their marketing strategies for young people.
Altogether, as of 2021, OneChild’s work has impacted over 100,000 at-risk children, child survivors, parents, social workers, citizen sector workers, and law enforcement officials through prevention education, advocacy, and survivor empowerment. Notably, between 2005 and 2018, the volunteer labor of young people solely produced much of this impact. In 2018, OneChild hit a point of inflection when it successfully fundraised to start paying staff salaries and to bring on Cheryl full-time.
Her career in child protection began at age 17, after playing the main role of the decoy in a STING operation with Sri Lankan authorities to apprehend a child sex perpetrator.
World Economic Forum
Going forward, Cheryl aims to increase the guidance for and by children and youth against SEC and to continue to foster the conditions for child-adult partnerships with parents, educators, and other adult supporters. For example, OneChild builds relationships with different members of Parliament in Canada, creating space and support for OneChild’s movement of young people to petition for meetings with MPs to share recommendations. The first agenda item is to garner support for mandatory training on recognizing and reporting child trafficking in Canada’s hospitality sector—where much SEC takes place and therefore a key point of leverage. In 2021, Cheryl secured a partnership with the Peel Region of Greater Toronto to fight human trafficking. Peel Region has the highest rate of human trafficking in the GTA. OneChild’s programming is now at the heart of the area.
As relationships build, OneChild and their Youth Squad plan to seek more values-aligned corporate and government sponsorships to scale their in-school program to other underserved parts of the province of Ontario (where 2/3 of all abuse cases in Canada exist), and other provinces in Canada. Cheryl and her organization are targeting the provincial Ministries of Education, Minis-tries of Children, Community and Social Services, and Anti-Trafficking Coordination Offices to demonstrate how OneChild’s “Break the Chains” school programming and youth-led partnerships prevent child sex trafficking and advance provincial curriculum objectives. In 2021, OneChild joined forces with Ontario Physical Education Curriculum to co-apply for provincial funding to create a 7th and 8th-grade gym curriculum around SEC prevention. Internationally, OneChild plans to join ECPAT, a worldwide network of over 100 organizations working to end SEC, so that they can share knowledge and resources for prevention as well as build their growing movement of young people and adult allies. Together, these strategies are putting Cheryl on track to her end goal: to build young people’s capacity to protect themselves and their peers in the fight against SEC and to be advocates for the change they wish to see.
In 2001, at age 16, Cheryl learned about the child sex trade while researching for a high school project. She recalls being filled with anger that people were exploiting children her age and younger in such a heinous way, and she resolved to stop it. Realizing that her native country, Sri Lanka, was considered a “pedophile’s paradise”—with 40,000 sexually exploited children— she decided at 17 to organize a solo, three-and-a-half month, fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka. She wanted to consult child victims, social workers, NGO workers, law enforcement, and government officials to get an insider’s look into the child sex trade.
When Cheryl arrived in Sri Lanka, she contacted and managed to partner with the National Child Protection Authority and convinced them to let her play the main role of the decoy—a sexually exploited teen in an undercover sting operation. The operation was successful and ended in the apprehension of a 40-year-old Canadian perpetrator and father of two. During her stay, Cheryl brought her experiences from meeting various stakeholders, as well as going undercover, to a meeting with the Advisor to the President of Sri Lanka on Social Infrastructure. At the conclusion of this meeting, the President offered Cheryl a place in the Presidential Secretariat to serve as the President of Sri Lanka’s Nominee on Child Protection and asked her to assist them with building a children’s parliament as well.
Through her discussions with the children, Cheryl learned about their suffering, as well as the change they wished to see. During that trip, Cheryl made a silent promise to every child she met that she would do everything in her power to fight for their rights. By going undercover, Cheryl understood—even for just a sliver of a moment—how it felt to have one’s childhood commodified. These experiences motivated Cheryl to return to Canada to start her years-long journey of bootstrapping, while working at McDonald's, to launch OneChild from her parents' basement. Cheryl’s commitment was solidified in her early years when she partnered with the PREDA Foundation in the Philippines to construct a rehabilitation center for rescued girls and with Action Pour Les Enfants to build a prevention education and training center for law enforcement in Cambodia. Cheryl is committed to using OneChild as a means to empower young people to protect their rights.