Public prosecutor reflects on WDCD’s new challenge on sexual exploitation of children

‘One of the side effects of the Internet is that also dishonest contacts can be made very easily. Children can be trapped in sexual exploitation within a day,’ says public prosecutor Daphne van der Zwan, who is specialized in human trafficking and people smuggling. In this interview Van der Zwan provides a background for the new, invitation-only challenge on sexual exploitation of under-aged youths WDCD is about to launch.

In a little more than a month time, WDCD will kick-off a new challenge on Day 1 of WDCD Live Amsterdam. This challenge, No Minor Thing, the What Design Can Do challenge to combat sexual exploitation of children, is a closed, invitation-only one. Twelve design agencies and a design school have been invited to participate in this challenge, aimed at finding new and innovative ways to prevent and fight the urgent issue of sexual exploitation of children.

‘This is a mostly hidden and difficult to fight problem,’ public prosecutor Van der Zwan explains. ‘The cases we see mainly concern girls in their teens, who are tricked into sexual exploitation through social media. The old method of lover boys, who pretend to be a girl’s boyfriend before forcing her into prostitution, is practically disappeared. We see this method much less than before. People seem to have become more aware of this classic method and meanwhile social media have become much more important in life, especially of young people. Children are lured into sexual exploitation in more sophisticated ways, often using blackmail as a pressure tool.’


In Dutch law sexual exploitation of under-aged youths is considered as human trafficking, a fact still little known to most people, including the ‘clients’, the people who pay for sex with these children. They are generally better aware of the fact that paid sex with under-aged children is prohibited anyway, but often argue that they hadn’t been aware of the young age of the girl of boy they had sex with.

‘We know that boys are involved in this too, but we see much less of these cases, because boys are even less inclined to report their exploitation,’ says Van der Zwan. The case we do see concern generally vulnerable girls, often with a cultural background in which shame and family pride are important. They are blackmailed with nude pictures of themselves that they shared earlier in good confidence. The perpetrators also are quick in isolating the victim from their social networks, which makes it difficult for the victim’s surroundings to pick up signals that something is wrong.’


Some girls step into this very naively, Van der Zwan tells. ‘We meet girls who more or less voluntarily started to have paid sex, thinking of it as an easy way to get money. But in our work we see the state these girls are in after a certain period of exploitation. Often, the effect is felt only later, sometimes when they are in their twenties.’

The challenge will focus on several aspects of the problem. The participating designers will be able to choose from five different briefs that focus on, for instance, prevention, awareness or technical solutions to stop the exploitation. What does Van der Zwan expect from this challenge?

‘To be honest: I have no idea,’ she answers. ‘We think a lot ourselves about how to tackle this problem, of course. We work with the police and with social aid organizations to spread information and raise awareness among both the potential victims and the people who pay for sex with them. What I hope for is that the designers will come up with entirely new approaches, seeing things we haven’t thought of yet. That would be great. For me, it is already clear that a lot can be gained with new apps that will help to reach the young right there where they are best reached, on the Internet.’