Cheryl is creating the social and structural conditions for sexually exploited children and children-peers to design, develop and deliver self-empowerment programs, policies, and educational curriculum. By betting on young people to disrupt the structures of sexual exploitation of children, she builds resilience amongst children to protect their rights – and for adults to follow their lead.
The New Idea
Cheryl Perera is empowering children and youth to take action against the sexual exploitation of children (SEC) through preventative education, survivor empowerment, and advocacy and mobilization for institutional reform and policy change. Her new idea shakes up traditional ‘child protection’ efforts by centering young people and encouraging them to take their place as changemakers on issues that involve them directly. Instead of the standard “doom and gloom” approach that focuses on the vulnerability of children in the fight against the SEC, she uses the problem as an opportunity to nurture children rights and to support youth with transforming themselves and the world then are in.
Cheryl’s new idea interrupts and decreases the supply of vulnerable children available to predators. It is built on three core pillars: prevention education, capacity building, and advocacy partnerships. OneChild’s educational programming consists of motivational speaking and workshop tours – for and by youth – that sweep across high schools and elementary schools in Ontario—Canada’s largest province where there are the highest instances of SEC. This closes the knowledge gap and inspires students to take action. From there, motivated youth are engaged to receive changemaker training, where they obtain factsheets and toolkits for both in-person and digital action campaigns to run at their schools or other events. Those who choose to deepen their changemaker skillsets join the “Youth Advisory Squad”. These children receive mentorship and coaching in awareness-raising, public speaking, advocacy, and fundraising in their communities. Through this process young people transform their own lives with new leadership skills, confidence and capacities for resilience and self-protection of themselves and their peers. This is key as often the children most vulnerable to traffickers and child sex offenders suffer from mental health problems such as low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety.
Cheryl’s peer-to-peer approach builds capacity for children to be buddies to one another and to protect each other. Her new idea leverages the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which claims that all children are granted the rights to be protected from all forms of sexual exploitation and to have a say in matters that affect them. She celebrates young people as social and political actors with expertise, creativity, intelligence, and tech savviness to determine solutions and guide other stakeholders in implementing solutions in solidarity. Her approach is grassroots and bottom up, catalyzing non-formal child protection actors (such as peers, parents, and relevant industry allies) to take action alongside formal actors (police, law makers, social workers) in unique children-government and children-private sector collaborations. Cheryl’s aim is that the public knowledge on identifying and interfering with the SEC is mainstreamed and that children, especially victims and survivors, are regularly incorporated in the development of legislation, policies, and programs to fight it.
Sexual exploitation of children (SEC) 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 prostitution, as well as online dangers such as grooming, sextortion, and proliferation of child sexual abuse videos and images. These forms often overlap and can impact all children. However, certain groups of children are more at risk; Statistics Canada (2016) highlights that First Nation, Inuit, and Métis women and girls, youth in care, runaway and homeless youth, persons with disabilities, refugees and migrants, and LGBTQ2 persons are most vulnerable.
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. Canadian Centre for Child Protection’s tip platforms counted 2.4 million Canadians reporting to being sexually victimized as a child in a 2018 report. From police reported human trafficking in 2018, Statistics Canada highlights that most victims were women and girls (97%), and predominantly trafficked for sexual exploitation purposes. Half (45%) of these victims were between the ages of 18 and 24 and 28% were under the age of 18.
In terms of the perpetrators, Statistics Canada (2018) has identified that four in five (81%) persons accused of human trafficking from 2009-2018 have been men. They also recorded 35% of Canadian sex traffickers or pimps were between 18-24 years old and 31% were 25 to 34 years. Perpetrators span racial, ethnic, and socio-economic demographics. The perpetrators may be pedophiles or perpetrators completely unknown to the victim, though most demand for SEC comes from individuals that children know and trust—they identify and leverage their victims’ vulnerabilities to create dependency. Expanding access to the Internet, mobile technology, and cheap travel make this crime easier to commit; never has it been easier for perpetrators to contact children, share images and videos of their abuse, hide their 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 become hunting grounds, where someone often plays the role of a “Romeo” pimp to lure victims. Juvenile recruiters are often given the job of bringing in more minors.
The impact of SEC cannot be overstated. This crime is not only a violation of children’s human rights but poses lifetime trauma that continues to outpace laws and policies, the justice system, and child protection services. In the case of online sexual exploitation, a child can potentially be re-victimized millions of times, every time an image or video is watched, sent, or received. The crime comprises the physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual well-being of the child, and can become generational, if left untreated.
Historically, this problem has largely been tackled through the prosecution of perpetrators and the protection of survivors. This 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. This stops survivors from becoming future abusers as well. While these interventions are critical, the lack of robust prevention tactics weakens the fight against the SEC. There is major oversight around youth empowerment that hampers our ability to stop the supply of children available to perpetrators. In the past, there have been isolated prevention efforts, such as government and NGO awareness campaigns, but they have failed to reach the demographic most impacted – the children. On the occasion that they do reach children, they are often based on the normative framework of “protection”, which views children as helpless and needing supervision and assistance from adults. Children are only really given the option to "snitch" to the police or other adults about what they see amongst friends. These tactics fail to appreciate that children are the experts of their own experience and can be empowered to protect themselves and their peers.
During a 3.5-month trip to Sri Lanka in 2002 when she was 17, Cheryl was exposed to the robustness 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, she wanted to share with other children about what she had seen, heard, and experienced. Cheryl traveled from school to school, presenting to thousands of students and was met with motivated youth who were devastated to learn that their peers were being exploited and wanted to be a part of the solution. Looking to engage these students, Cheryl reached out to established NGOs explaining that she was a teenager with an army of teenagers eager to help. However, Cheryl’s emails were met 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 founded OneChild with a group of friends and family members as an organization empowering a youth-led movement against the SEC, through education, advocacy, and empowerment. She incubated OneChild in her family home; her mother cooked for volunteers, and they worked multiple jobs to donate to their own NGO. OneChild’s primary access point for youth was, and to this day is, through motivational speeches at school assemblies and classroom-based workshops. They engage young people through child and youth friendly educational workshops, activist trainings, toolkits, action campaigns, and youth events and conferences. This is where young people learn how to look out for each other and themselves to 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 inequity, 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. They partner with ARISE (Advocacy and Reclaiming Individuals involved in the Sex trade through Empowerment) Ministry to provide trauma counsellors at every session, as well as the Ontario Provincial Police. By 2021, their prevention education has reached just over 36,000 youth in 230 schools. Cheryl designed these speeches and workshops to be easy to get in front of young people, with the potential to have long lasting impact. Her 2021 survey data indicates that following their presentations, 89.9% of student 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 their 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 child protection policies. One of their first advocacy partnerships in 2005 was with Air Canada Airlines, where in OneChild youth developed an inflight awareness campaign on the SEC in travel and tourism. This campaign reached 22 million people internationally, while their nation-wide campaign reached millions in Canada. In 2021, she 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 79,000 at-risk children, child survivors, parents, social workers, NGO workers, and law enforcement staff through prevention education, advocacy, and survivor empowerment. What is notable is that much of this impact – between 2005 and 2018 – was solely produced through the volunteer labour of young people. In 2018, OneChild hit a point of inflection when it successfully fundraised to start paying staff salaries and to bring on Cheryl full time. 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 and creating space and support for OneChild’s movement of young people to petition for meetings with MPs to share their recommendations. Their first agenda item is to garner support for mandatory trainings on recognizing and reporting child trafficking in the hospitality sector in Canada – one of the most predominant sectors for SEC. In 2021, she locked in a partnership with the Peel Region of Greater Toronto’s Strategy around human trafficking. Peel region has the highest rate of human trafficking in the GTA and OneChild’s programming will be deployed to fulfil their prevention pillar.
As relationships build, OneChild and their Youth Squad plan to seek more values-aligned corporate and government sponsorship to scale their in-school program to other underserved parts of the province of Ontario (where 2/3 of the cases exist in Canada), and other provinces in Canada. They are targeting the provincial Ministries of Education, Ministries of Children, Community and Social Services, and Anti-Trafficking Coordination Offices to demonstrate how OneChild’s ‘Break the Chains’ school programing and youth-led partnerships prevents child sex trafficking and advances provincial curriculum objectives. In 2021, OneChild joined forces with Ontario Physical Education Curriculum to co-apply for provincial funding to create grade 7 and 8 gym curriculum around SEC prevention. Internationally, they plan 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 build their growing movement of young people and adult allies. Together, these strategies are putting Cheryl on track to her end goal, which is 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 children her age and younger were being exploited 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, 3.5-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 she arrived in Sri Lanka, she contacted and managed to partner with the National Child Protection Authority to 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 placement at the Presidential Secretariat to serve as the President of Sri Lanka’s Nominee on Child Protection and was asked to assist them to build a children's parliament as well.
Through her discussions with the children, she 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, she 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 journey of years of bootstrapping, while working at McDonalds, to launch OneChild from her parents' basement. Her commitment was solidified in her early years, when she partnered with PREDA Foundation in the Philippines to construct a rehabilitation centre for rescued girls and with Action Pour Les Enfants to build a prevention education and training centre for law enforcement in Cambodia. Cheryl is committed to using OneChild as a means to empower young people to protect their rights and is a member of the Canadian Coalition of the Rights of a Child.