Dr Leanne Beagley, the CEO of the National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse, says that "when we are strong, we can stand with those who feel shaky. When we are shaky, we have new insights into what it’s like for those who live with trauma.”

What three Australian women have learned about fighting child sexual exploitation

From the power of small actions to raise awareness of child sexual exploitation to the healing power of salt water through exercise or ocean swims, three women working daily in child sexual prevention share what they’ve learned from their time in what can be an emotionally gruelling space.

Just a heads up, this piece deals with child sexual exploitation.

Child sexual exploitation is all around us, a crime hidden in plain sight thanks to a pervasive culture of silence and stigma. According to current research, one in three women experienced sexual abuse as a child, compared to one in five boys. Further to this, perpetrators of violence against women and girls have often been found guilty of child sexual exploitation and abuse against both groups. 

The figures are startling and paint a confronting picture of the terrifying world that many children continue to face. It’s a situation that industry leaders ICMEC Australia chief executive Anna Bowden, National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse chief executive Dr Leanne Beagley and Bravehearts chief executive Alison Geale have devoted much of their professional lives to ameliorating. The three women are coming together to urgently call for an end to violence against women and girls. 

Here, we speak with each leader about their roles, their never ending fight to end child sexual exploitation, and how we can all play a part in helping end the abuse. 

Anna Bowden, CEO of ICMEC Australia

Anna Bowden, CEO of ICMEC Australia, is one of the leading women tackling child sexual exploitation and ending violence against young women. A powerful voice in a challenging industry, Anna leads the charge against the growing harm to our children online and is responsible for showing resilience every day in the face of darkness.

Lack of awareness is a major driving force behind Anna’s work. “It’s still not broadly understood by society how common child sexual exploitation is - more than one in four Australian children are sexually abused and exploited - and what we need to do to stop it,” she says. 

As someone with lived experience of child sexual abuse, Anna says that for her, doing something to contribute feels better than nothing. “There’s a lot of evidence to support that feeling helpless in the face of horrible events can feel really awful,” she says. “Despite how overwhelming the problem can seem, every tiny thing we do to protect children adds up – and, together, we can achieve change.”

Anna also names salt water - whether sweating through exercise, tears, or swimming in the sea - as aids to help her manage the emotional toll of her work. “As the saying goes, sweat, tears, and the sea can make a lot of things feel better. Sweat and exercise are huge coping strategies for me.”

As for the question of legislation, Anna says Australia is very fortunate to have Julie Inman Grant as the eSafety Commissioner, whose team is world-leading in their regulatory response to technology-facilitated crimes. 

“We need others to follow Julie’s leadership and put children’s safety first in legislation and regulation. Our commercial and consumer interests should always come after the priority of defending children’s human right to safety.”

Anna sees the solution to child sexual exploitation involving a comprehensive, cross-sector approach to child protection, with government, law enforcement, families, community, and businesses all playing a critical role.  

“Children and young people interact with all these systems, and so do perpetrators,” she says. “We can’t continue to say ‘it’s just up to police, or government to sort this out’. They do tremendous work, but this is something we all must participate in.

“As hard as that is, we must confront it and have conversations with each other, and children about how to prevent and stop this. I never got justice against the man who offended against me, because I didn’t know how to vocalise it, or who to tell. We need to open the dialogue across society and with our children. We can’t confront anything we don’t know, or understand.”

As Nelson Mandela said: “There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children”. 

Dr Leanne Beagley, CEO of the National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse 

Dr Leanne Beagley is tasked with overseeing the work of the National Centre and providing leadership on integrated responses to child sexual abuse and its impacts across the country. 

Leanne began her journey when working as a therapist with children who had been traumatised by abuse from someone they trusted. “It broke my heart,” she says. 

As adults with agency and power, she says we must fight for the rights of children to be heard, believed and protected. “What continues to motivate me is the growing roar of those who have lived and living experience of child sexual abuse. They richly deserve the support and healing and change that they are asking for.”

Leanne admits that there are times when she struggles to manage the emotional toll of the work. “For me, it’s about balancing the challenging and demanding and draining experiences with others that are generative, productive, healing and affirming,” she says.

“When we are strong, we can stand with those who feel shaky. When we are shaky, we have new insights into what it’s like for those who live with trauma.”

To fight the issue effectively, Leanne says we need to understand how it happens - whether that’s from data, lived experience, from research - and interrupt the trajectories at every step of the way. “We have to be prepared to do lots of things all at once.” This multidimensional approach, along with the challenges faced, provide the foundation for the National Centre’s five-year strategic plan - Here for Change.

Solutions also lie in several actions that interplay with one another. These include building strong, confiding, safe relationships with the children around you, and taking preventative measures seriously - for example, the National Centre’s resource on online safety.

On an individual level, there are several steps we all can take to make a difference. This includes knowing the signs of a child who is a risk or experiencing grooming, and taking action when you see those signs. “If you think it is happening, then you are probably right,” Leanne says.

“CSE is prevalent and it is a crime perpetrated by manipulative wily people who remain hidden by a culture of silence and stigma. For prevention and healing to occur, it is critical we shed light on the issue and bring it out of the shadows. The time for us all to take action is now.”

Alison Geale, CEO of Bravehearts

Alison Geale believes there is no better reason to rise to the work challenge every day than to protect our most vulnerable – our children. Ensuring children are safe from sexual abuse and helping those who have been impacted.

When it comes to the emotional toll of her work, Alison says she has a barometer ‘to gauge when my internal ledger feels off.’ Generally, that barometer works well, but there are still times when it can be tested. 

“Balance is key, the task at hand is so important and can feel never-ending, naturally the desire to do everything can overtake your bandwidth and will test you,” she says. 

“I have a trusted team; we all lean on each other and have open dialogue to help each other check in on self-care.”

Alison believes that stopping child sexual exploitation crimes involves approaching them holistically, through both systemic and societal change. Education has an important role to play, with Alison recommending that all people, including young people and children, are educated on this topic just as you would any other safety topic as they develop. 

“Children and young people are accessing all the wonders of the world through the internet and conversely all of the dangers are impacting them equally. Having open, appropriate, and informed discussions with children and young people from an educated perspective is a priority,” she says.

The most important lesson Alison has learned is that ‘shame, secrecy, and silence assist the crime to thrive in plain sight every day.’ She says that in order to break down the paradigms and myths around child sexual abuse and exploitation, we must normalise the discussion with our children. 

“The responsibility of their safety should not lie solely with children, but with everyone.”

If this article brings up strong feelings or questions for you, there are a number of places for support and advice:

Bravehearts: 1800 272 831 or www.Bravehearts.org.au
Blue Knot Foundation: 1300 657 380 or www.BlueKnot.org.au
Survivors & Mates Support Network (SAMSN): 1800 472 676 or www.Samsn.org.au
PartnerSPEAK (peer support for non-offending partners): (03) 9018 7872
Lifeline: 13 11 14
1800RESPECT: 1800 737 732
MensLine Australia: 1300 789 978
Kids Helpline (for children and young people aged between 5–25): 1800 55 1800 or www.kidshelpline.com.au
13YARN (crisis support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples): 13 92 76 or www.13yarn.org.a