Four women who are on a mission to end the sexual exploitation of girls
It’s time we started having uncomfortable conversations about one of the fastest growing crimes that disproportionately affects girls, leaving a lasting impact on their lives.
Child sexual exploitation is a subject that most people don’t want to talk about, especially in public forums. Much like our aversion to discussing domestic and family violence before Rosie Batty bravely shared her pain to put the issue onto the public agenda almost ten years ago, it’s a topic that is difficult and fraught with misconception.
It’s estimated that one in five Australian girls has experienced sexual violence by the age of 15. And with several studies indicating that the rate of disclosure could be as low as 25%, it’s likely that many more are affected.
It’s an age-old problem, but the advent of the internet has seen the issue escalate as technology and perpetrator access to networks and sharing, both on the clear and dark webs, has improved. It has also added new crime types, ways to generate child sexual abuse material (CSAM) and the ability for perpetrators to more freely groom masses of victims.
The week of International Women’s Day is a fitting time to acknowledge four Australian who women are putting child sexual abuse on the agenda and leading organisations on a mission to putting an end to the sexual exploitation of children in its many forms.
Julie Inman Grant – Australian eSafety Commissioner
Julie Inman Grant is Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, leading the world’s first government regulator dedicated to keeping its citizens safer online. In this role Julie has launched the global Safety by Design initiative and led work to stand up novel and world-first regulatory regimes under the new Online Safety Act 2021, implementing a sweeping new set of online safety reforms. Julie spent two decades working in senior public policy and safety roles in the tech industry.
“We need online platforms to make it much harder for predators to view, produce, share and sell child exploitation material. While the exploitation of girls is an age-old issue, the demand for this type of material has been supercharged by the internet. The overwhelming majority of this deeply harmful and traumatising online material, 96 per cent of it, features girls.
“One of the biggest barriers we face is a lack of information about how far and wide this material is spreading. Our recent world-first transparency report revealed that industry is only tinkering at the edges of this horrific problem.
“And if we don’t know the extent of the harm, how can we possibly be taking the necessary steps to eradicate it?
“It’s time to stop ignoring the fact that crime of horrendous proportions is happening on the platforms we all use every day.”
Anna Bowden – CEO, ICMEC Australia
Anna Bowden’s extensive experience in impact investing, philanthropy and impact strategy is critical to her role as CEO of International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC) Australia. Having worked across government, social impact organisations, foundations and consulting, Anna provides a deep understanding of outcomes-focused programs. With a very personal connection to the vital work of countering child sexual exploitation, Anna is now leading ICMEC Australia’s programs to implement innovative digital projects that help detect and report the online traces left by perpetrators of child sexual exploitation.
“We need all-in, whole-of-society partnerships to protect girls from the dangers that face them. For too long, we’ve shied away from this topic. It’s too horrendous, too awful, too painful to think about. That’s not helpful. We all need to fight this together. Victims, families, the private sector, government, society.
“I have two young girls, and I want them to grow up into a world which is much safer than it is today. I want them to know we all collaborated to create that world for them.”
“Perpetrators of this crime are networked. They collaborate and they share information, not just materials, but how to avoid detection, how to meet children. They collaborate and move quickly. We need to enable those fighting the crime to collaborate and share information as easily as the perpetrators do.
“We need a much greater focus on prevention, but we also need to be thinking about how we build the systems that will prevent this in two, three, five years, because the technology is changing so rapidly.”
Dr Leanne Beagley – CEO, The National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse
Dr Leanne Beagley is a senior leader within child and family mental health, combining clinical experience with extensive contributions to policy change through roles within the Victorian Government and at a national level with health and advocacy organisations.
As the CEO of the National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse (the National Centre), Leanne leverages her career passion for establishing a safe future for Australian children to drive real change. In her current role, she is doing this by crafting a response to the issue of child sexual exploitation based on the lived experience of victims and survivors of all ages.
“To create a safer future for girls, it is critical that relationships with parents, teachers and other trusted adults encourage sharing, education about personal boundaries and understanding of their own rights with regards to their bodies.”
“To avoid exploitation, it is integral that girls witness respect by other adults for the women in their lives in all settings and contexts.”
“Early discussions about online safety are also essential. One of the key issues preventing us from keeping girls safe is a lack of understanding and education around online grooming and how to prevent it, amongst parents, teachers and the children themselves. We need to understand how this happens by learning from those who have experienced it and then work together to combat the significant harm that it represents.
“We live in a time where children have easy access to inappropriate content, which serves to normalise certain behaviours and puts them more at risk of being groomed. We need to find ways to prevent this access and offer advice to parents and caregivers on managing these risks.”
Alison Geale – CEO, Bravehearts
Alison Geale is committed to innovation and collaboration, with a focus on strengthening sector partnerships, and believes that all organisations working together will create a safer world for children. She has been the CEO of Bravehearts since 2019 and is an experienced leadership professional with over 20 years of experience in Australian media. Ensuring children are safe from sexual abuse fuels the everyday work and strategic direction of Bravehearts, which has a relentless commitment to the prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse.
“Girls and young women remain one of the most heavily marketed to cohorts. Often the messages they receive reinforce unhealthy stereotypes and aspirations for young girls on many levels, including sex. Young girls are so much more than what they look like, or how sexy they are.
“Advertisers, marketers, social media, and those with influence need to be committed to addressing the imbalance of how girls are portrayed, valued, and marketed to. Adults need to understand the scale and depth of the problem, so we need education for parents, carers, teachers to enable them to skill-up to the level of their children. We can’t just leave the education and protection of girls to themselves.”
“We create barriers to improve in this space through the unhealthy norms displayed and aspired to across digital platforms and social media that sadly have led to increased vulnerability and decreased resilience in young girls. Big tech must act to protect them, it’s their backyard.
“As girls continue to be sold unrealistic and unhealthy benchmarks in their formative years on beauty, health, and sex, the more vulnerable they become to exploitation. The shame and stigma of this crime, which can keep young girls in exploitative situations, needs to be removed. Further, when women share their lived experiences of this crime, it helps provide preventative education which can protect young girls today.”
This International Women’s Day let’s start having the conversations that need to happen. Let’s embrace the innovation and technological change that’s necessary. And let’s all be part of the education that’s needed around this subject to keep girls safe from harm and help them achieve lives of equality and empowerment.