Discussion with Ms Elena Rapti about the exploitation and sexual abuse of children

interview by Myrofora Papadopoulou, member of the Interviews Team

translated by Sophia Moriki, member of the Editorial Team

In recent years, one of the most important social phenomena that concerns more and more often our society is the sexual abuse and exploitation, whose victims are among others children. Society condemns such acts and stands in favour of the victims. However, beyond the social outcry and the transient preoccupation with that phenomenon, only as long as it concerns the cases that are in the spotlight and are shown by the media, as a society we have to be informed if we want a better future for us and for the upcoming generations. 

The purpose of the campaign “ONE in FIVE” is prevention by informing society; more specifically it aims at protecting children from being sexually abused, as well as mobilizing public opinion on the subject. Society is vigilant and this is achieved through such actions. The “ONE in FIVE” campaign is the Council of Europe’s effort to raise awareness and inform in respect, but also to prevent the occurrence of new incidents of sexual violence. The philosophy of the Organization is that an informed citizen is also a citizen who acts properly and that is what it attempts to highlight through such initiatives. The “ONE in FIVE” campaign encompasses the values, ideals and principles of the Council of Europe concerning human rights, which are universally accepted. With regard to this interesting, but at the same time contemporary social phenomenon, I could not help but discuss it with the person in charge of the matter, Mrs Elena Rapti, who is the coordinator of the campaign “ONE in FIVE” for Greece.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I was born in Thessaloniki. I graduated from Arsakeio. I am a graduate of the Department of Greek Culture of the Open University. I studied Psychology and got my Master’s degree in Business Administration. I worked as a freelancer in the field of audiovisual communication systems.

I was first elected Municipal Councillor of Thessaloniki, in 1998, and I was re-elected, in 2002, first in preference crosses.

I am a founding member of the Social Organization “Love” and the Volunteer Information Center “Group With You”.

I was first elected MP for Thessaloniki with the party of New Democracy in 2004 and again in 2007, 2009, in the double parliamentary elections of May and June 2012, January and September 2015 and July 2019. 

In 2012, I was appointed a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a member of the Network of Parliamentarians to end child sexual abuse and coordinator of the Council of Europe’s “ONE in FIVE” campaign in Greece.

In 2017, I was appointed member of the Expert Group of the new programme co-organised by the Council of Europe’s Enlarged Partial Agreement on Sport (EPAS) and the European Union entitled: “Safety in Sport+ – Ending Sexual Harassment and Abuse of Children in Sport”.

What have you gained from your tenure in various positions in the Council of Europe?

The Council of Europe is doing an excellent job for the whole of European society. My experience with the Lanzarote Commission, the Parliamentary Network and the Children’s Right Division is that Europe has the structures, planning and people to achieve important social objectives, such as ending child sexual abuse through a major campaign that I am honoured to coordinate in Greece.

Which was the reason, the motive that led you to deal with child sexual abuse?

The Council of Europe protects and promotes the rights of children in Europe through the “Building a Europe for and with children”programme. One of the five pillars of the Council of Europe’s current “Strategy for the Rights of the Child 2016-2021” is described as “A life without violence for all children”. It also includes the protection of children from sexual abuse and exploitation.

The reason that made me deal with this very serious issue was the sad statistics showing that one in five children in Europe is actually a victim of child sexual abuse. And, of course, the daily incidents of child violence that come to light. As long as there are children who are victims of such behaviour, no one can be complacent.

It is widely known that abuse is manifested in various ways. Why did you want to get involved and highlight this aspect of it?

I believe that the high rates of sexual exploitation and child abuse require us to act immediately and effectively. Previous research by the Institute of Child Health had shown that the rate in Greece is 16%. We cannot stand idly by, but fight with all our power to combat this phenomenon. In 2013, as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I was appointed Parliamentary Liaison to the Network of Parliamentarians to end child sexual abuse and I took over the coordination of the “ONE in FIVE” campaign in Greece. My goal, since day one, is to inform and raise awareness of Greek society (children, parents, teachers and more generally professionals dealing with children) through the information tools of the Council of Europe. I believe the well-informed children are safe.

What is important for us to know and what is in the “ONE in FIVE” campaign?

The campaign sets two objectives from the outset: to sign, ratify and implement the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (also known as the Lanzarote Convention) and to inform and raise society’s awareness on this issue. Greece signed and ratified the Lanzarote Convention by Law 3727/2008. In terms of information and awareness in Greece, our work, moving into its seventh year, finds enormous resonance, numbering hundreds of meetings and collaborations with institutional and state actors, 640 actions throughout the country, television appearances, distribution of thousands of copies of information material. Silence is unfortunately a great ally of the abusers. This is the silence we want to defeat, creating an information framework and a safety net for children. Our goal is to teach children rules of self-protection, but also to make children feel safe to report the abuser.

A comprehensive series of information tools has been created consisting of the fairytale “Kiko and the Hand”, as well as cartoons “The Secret of Victory” and “The Secret of Victory 2 – Victor’s Adventure”. Especially “The Secret of Victory” has been a great success, garnering over three million views online.

Where do you think that’s due?

As part of the campaign, in addition to the valuable tools of the Council of Europe, namely the fairytale that teaches the “Rules of Underwear” and the accompanying spot “Kiko and the Hand”, the newsletter for parents and the brochure “7 helplines”, we also implemented two tools of the Greek campaign “ONE in FIVE” that are particularly popular and dear to children. These are the two 3D animated stories “The Secret of Victory” and “Victor’s Adventure” which, in an educational and entertaining way, teach children that their bodies belong to them, the difference between a good and a bad touch, a good and a bad secret and where to ask for help. Both stories are the result of collective systematic work by a group of talented people with whom I had the pleasure to work.

“My body belongs to me,” is a sentence heard in Victory’s Secret. Do you think it encloses the whole essence of the message you want to transmit?

This is precisely the content of the “Underwear Rule”, that is to say that children know that no one can touch them in the area of their body covered by underwear and that they have the right to say “NO” to a kiss or a caress, even if it comes from people they love and trust, if they do not wish to. We want to create children capable of protecting themselves from sexual abuse and violence through simple, understandable and easy-to-implement self-protection rules. We know that we are addressing a tender age (the update starts at the age of 4 years) and it is precisely with these needs that all the campaign material I mentioned was created.

Does the project launched with the Council of Europe’s 2010-2015 campaign continue to bear fruit?

In 2016, our country’s obligation to coordinate the “ONE in FIVE” campaign was completed. In the same year, the Council of Europe adopted the “Strategy for the Rights of the Child 2016-2021”, which I already mentioned to you. With the approval of the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and having signed a new Cooperation Pact with the Children’s Rights Division, I continue the work I was carrying out as a Parliamentary Liaison, namely the coordination of initiatives and actions, so that the useful messages for preventing child abuse reach every child in order to be safe.

In the near future, we approach another social dimension, adding a third animated story entitled “The Secret of Victory 3 – The Power of Veronique”, where the heroine, a girl in a wheelchair, is sexually harassed by a stranger and with the help of her friends chooses to address a police officer.

We have completed our enastapente.gr site, where we have included all our useful messages, information tools and actions in order to easily access and inform both children and parents, as well as professionals and bodies involved in child protection.

Finally, the Council of Europe’s new initiative to end online sexual exploitation and abuse of children is particularly important. To this end, new tools have been created under the title “Kiko and the Manymes”: an inventive spot and an excellent fairytale presenting Kiko’s experience with screens and “the golden rules of screens”, as well as a new form for parents teaching them how to protect their children and avoid exposure to phones with video cameras and cameras or a webcam. All new tools provide a basic set of rules for empowering children to protect their privacy and image in the digital environment.

On the specific issue of risks in the digital environment, how significant is Europe’s pathogeny?

In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in cases of sexual abuse and exploitation of children at an unprecedented rate. Last year, tech companies reported nearly 70 million photos and videos of children being sexually abused. According to the Internet Watch Foundation, Europe was the world leader in hosting images of child sexual abuse in 2019. 

The current COVID19 pandemic has exacerbated cases of sexual abuse and exploitation of children on the Internet. A recent Europol report on cybercrime and disinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic confirms a huge increase in attempts to access illegal websites with child sexual exploitation material. In addition, in some EU Member States there has been an increase in adult offenders trying to get in contact with children via social media, while the restrictive travel measures are still in force.

This is why the campaign is progressing, achieving new partnerships with Regions and Municipalities of the country and with events online due to the lockdown with the support of the Electronic Crime Prosecution. It is our duty to maintain and increase information rates in this difficult circumstance.

How could the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs raise awareness of child sexual abuse among teachers, parents and students?

The integration of the campaign into schools is a reality. It’s another big step in the campaign that adds to what has been done over the last seven years. We have received from the Ministry of Education the approval of our two educational programs for the prevention of child sexual abuse that include the “Underwear Rule”. The first programme has been integrated into the pilot action of the Ministry of Education and the Institute of Educational Policy entitled “Skills Workshops”, with pilot implementation in all the experimental and standard Kindergarten and Primary Schools of the country, while the second is addressed to all Kindergarten and Primary Schools of the country (classes A, B, C, D) and teachers can find it on our site. With these decisions the campaign will be able to multiply its presence and seek even more systematically to transmit messages throughout primary education. Finally, I would like to add to all our efforts the role of teachers, which is indeed very decisive and important. Our children spend a lot of time in school, they create strong ties with teachers and the reveal to them of a possible “bad secret” is the point that leads to dealing with incidents of child sexual abuse.

Do you think that the campaign against child sexual abuse had the same acceptance by all European states? What key differences and similarities do you see in Greece and Europe in how to manage the phenomenon?

I would say that as far as the substance and extent of the problem are concerned, there are not very substantial differences between the European states. After all, the title ÖNE in FIVE” is a reflection of a correlation between Europe as a whole. The campaign has run in all states and has had relatively high acceptance from society that recognized the need to address this problem. In Greece, the campaign continues dynamically with additional information material and with the cooperation of institutions, the state and individuals. I believe that the information campaign on such an important issue has no end date.

Do you think that Greek society today is ready to act effectively to eliminate the phenomenon?

The prevention and protection of children is the responsibility of adults. We should be receptive to children’s feelings and behavior. If a child refuses to make contact with an adult or even another child, there may be a reason. We should respect that. Children should feel that at any time they can talk to their parents or another adult they trust outside the family, such as their teacher or a police officer.

A large number of information and awareness-raising actions have been implemented in collaboration with Parents’ and Guardians’ Associations. This demonstrates the great need, but above all the will for information in order to combat this morbid phenomenon effectively. Moreover, invitations from all over Greece for information activities continue to come with unrelenting intensity. We will respond to as many as possible.

Given that child abuse rates in 2020 due to a pandemic have increased are you optimistic about 2021?

Indeed, during the pandemic there were reports of an increase in incidents of domestic violence in general, as well as child sexual abuse. I am optimistic that 2021 will be better in terms of numbers, after all we have not stopped the information initiatives, which are now being done online so as not to lose all that we have built in the previous seven years. However, it takes a sustained and concerted effort and everyone’s commitment to the common cause, to see the number of victims of sexual abuse become smaller and smaller until it is zeroed in.

(The answer to this question can also be found here in greek.)

Would you like to share with us an incident that you remember vividly when you were closely working in the campaign?

There are lots of things I remember vividly. I have been shocked by incidents of abuse involving tender ages of a few years, even months.

However, I would like to mention an incident presented to us by Mrs Kousidou, Head of the Department of Minors of Thessaloniki. One student, who was sexually abused by her father, wrote a letter to the teacher because it was very difficult for her to talk about it. She had spoken to an aunt who didn’t believe her, so the only person she felt safe to talk to was her teacher. To be more specific, she wrote: “Madam, I want him to stop doing to me what he does. Yes, he’s my dad, I love him, we’re having a good time, but, no, I don’t want him to do that to me…”.

These kids are in a very difficult position. To a stranger, it’s easier to say no and turn against him. But as far as it concerns your person, emotions are mixed. Growing up with it, you get to believe that it happens in every house, that this is normal. Then things are much more difficult for children trapped in fear and guilt and ultimately in silence.

Finally, what message would you like to send to SAFIA readers who are basically students?

Student life is a unique experience. It is a beautiful journey that you will reminisce about for some time, with memories that will accompany you and remind you of the independence you felt, the consistency you showed in the attendances of your courses, the acquaintances you made, the friendships you built, the neglect you discovered.

The pandemic may significantly limit our daily lives, but it won’t last long. Dream, aim high and live this beautiful period of your life.

***

Sexual abuse and exploitation is a social phenomenon that unfortunately has been of concern to us more and more in recent years. Everyone’s hope is that with the right information, as achieved through the “ONE in FIVE” campaign, it can be limited and, why not, in the long run, eliminated. Humanity is so strong and this is demonstrated through its history, having managed to face significant challenges and has come out more resilient. Everyone’s wish is to achieve the same with sexual abuse and exploitation. The essence of the interview can be described in the word “collective”. The “ONE in FIVE” campaign is a collective project that aims to help society.

Because power in the unity can work wonders…


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