Bernadette McMenamin  

on Saturday, 12 May 2012. Posted in Leadership Interviews, Action Motivated Leadership

Bernadette McMenamin  
Chief Executive Officer, Child Wise
Bernadette McMenamin

UNICEF reported that in 2005, six million children were trafficked.

Child Wise is the Australian member of ECPAT International, a global network working in 77 countries aiming to prevent sexual exploitation of children. Bernadette McMenamin AO is the Chief Executive Officer of Child Wise™ Limited, based in Melbourne, Australia.  

Bernadette has a Masters in International Social Work and is highly regarded in Australia and overseas as a successful advocate and innovator in the prevention of child sexual abuse. She has devoted 22 years of her life to the issue.  In 1992 Bernadette became a founding member of ECPAT International in Thailand - a global campaign against child sexual exploitation. The campaign now exists in over 70 countries.  In 1993 Bernadette returned to Australia and established ECPAT in Australia (now known as Child Wise Limited).  As the National Director of Child Wise, Bernadette has been responsible for developing innovative child abuse prevention programs, managing extensive and multifaceted education and training programs and advocacy campaigns against global child sexual abuse and exploitation.  She has also been responsible for many “firsts”; including successful advocacy campaigns which have led to significant political, legal and social changes.  Of particular note is the enactment of the Child Sex Tourism law in 1994 to make sex with children overseas a prosecutable offence in Australia.  Bernadette is a qualified trainer and has developed numerous child abuse prevention training programs that have been delivered successfully in Australia and overseas. She has conducted thousands of workshops and has trained extensively internationally including: Thailand , the Philippines , Cambodia , Indonesia , Japan , Fiji , PNG, New Zealand , Switzerland and the United Kingdom.  Under Bernadette’s leadership Child Wise’s work is considered ground breaking, both nationally and internationally, and for these efforts Child Wise/ ECPAT has been recognised with multiple human rights awards.  In recognition of her contribution to the protection of children from sexual exploitation, Bernadette won the 2004 Victorian nomination for Australian of the Year and was awarded the Order of Australia (AO) in June 2004.

Interview with Bernadette McMenamin AO 

Why did you become interested in establishing a global campaign against child exploitation?   

Since childhood I had always stood up against what I saw was injustice. This led me to study politics and sociology and then later become a social worker so I could work to change the world. Big ideas but this is what I wanted to do. For over ten years I worked as a social worker on a large very underprivileged housing estate in inner city Melbourne and during that time learned so much about lobbying governments and advocating for change. I also travelled regularly to Asia which I fell in love with. In my visits to Thailand I was confronted with the sexual exploitation of children and women by foreign sex tourists. I was appalled by this and looked for a way I could work to change this situation. When I returned to Australia I looked for jobs overseas where I could work to prevent the sexual exploitation of children. This was difficult but fate supported me and gave me a volunteer position working to establish an international campaign in Bangkok called ECPAT (End child prostitution, pornography,and trafficking). I became one of the founding members of the international campaign in end child prostitution in 1992. Now the ECPAT campaign is established in over 70 countries. However after one year of working in Bangkok I felt I could do more for the campaign by returning to Australia and establishing an ECPAT campaign in Australia which I did in 1993. From then ECPAT Australia has become Child Wise a growing charity working in 15 countries in Asia and Pacific on a wide range of programs to prevent and protect children from sexual exploitation both commercial (prostitution, child sex tourism, trafficking and pornography and other forms of sexual abuse). Child Wise (ECPAT In Australia) was responsible for lobbying the Australian Government to enact the extra territorial child sex tourism law and the sex trafficking law and has been responsible for many innovative child abuse prevention programs delivered around the world.   

What were the steps that you took to make your vision a reality?   

Determination to stop the sexual exploitation of women and children was the main motivator for me to help establish the global campaign and a belief that we could actually change the situation. The practical steps were having a background in social work and social advocacy and looking for opportunities overseas to work in this field. When I began to seek employment through overseas aid agencies this issue was not on their agenda so I had to create my own opportunities. If I could not get paid work I was happy to work as a volunteer which I did and this was a very empowering but very humbling experience. When I returned to Australia to establish Child Wise the practical steps included raising awareness of the problem through the media, writing to politicians to advocate for law reform and attention to this issue, encouraging individuals and agencies to form a campaign, establishing a legal entity and forming a board of directors, fund raising and telling everyone who would listen about the problem of children being sexually exploited. I did not receive any salary for the first three years of ECPAT so I relied on waitressing at night as well as working 7 days to make this vision a reality. Now we have 8 full time staff who are all paid as well as a team of volunteers.   

How did you financially support yourself whilst taking on so many responsibilities on a voluntary basis?   

In Thailand I lived on local wages which was quite challenging because I could not afford things I and come to enjoy and take for granted. When I was establishing Child Wise (ECPAT In Australia) I financed myself and worked at night waitressing for close to 3 years before I received a salary. The for many years I only received a part time salary for full time work. I raised funds through mainly the international development agencies, individual donations and some government funds.   

What difficulties did you encounter then and continue to encounter in your aims?   

Initially the main challenge was getting people to listen to these horrible stories; that children were being exploited in prostitution, pornography and being trafficked and traded around the world. It was even harder for people to hear that Australians were exploiting poor and vulnerable children around the world. This took a few years before people wanted to listen. However the most challenging area is not having enough funds and resources to do all the work that we need to do and to meet the demand for our services. Child Wise receives no ongoing, core funding so every year we have to hope, pray but most importantly fund raise to ensure that we can deliver our services. As a small organisation it is hard to compete in fundraising with the very large agencies who can run mass media campaigns and hire people to tele-market for donations.  Having said that we have been very fortunate to have kind and generous donors that have helped Child Wise enormously.   

What do you perceive as being the best methods for lobbying government and non-government groups? 

Most definitely the best method is effective use of the media. The government listens to the media but we have always had to be careful to ensure that we do not burn bridges with the government by the media being overly destructive. We also had to be careful not to be used by the media. So by far the most effective strategy has been to develop close relations with credible journalists that believe in you and will continue to expose this problem. Child Wise has always been solution focussed so we do not only expose the problem but we also highlight the solutions. Another useful strategy has been to work closely with politicians of all parties and to write to them, meet with them, send them your newsletters and generally seek support from them. Always involve politicians. I always believed and still do that I can bring about change and continue to be optimistic about change. If you really believe in your cause others will to. Making the stories of these children to people made it real to them and that there were things that they could do to make a difference. No problem was to large to tackle.   

In your estimation, what is the situation regarding the exploitation of children and women worldwide?   

There are millions of women and children sexually exploited around the world. This could either be commercial (child sex tourism, prostitution, trafficking, pornography or non commercial in their own communities and families). It is impossible to measure but in Asia alone it the trade in women and children is estimated at one million per year.   

Are cases of child sex within Australia increasing? To what do you attribute this increase?   

With more exposure of child sexual abuse there is more reporting and while this seems that there is more child sexual abuse in Australia there is probably not.  It is estimated that one in 3 females and one in 5-7 males will experience some form of sexual abuse in their child hood and the vast majority of these children will never tell. It is the most hidden of all crimes. however these days more children are speaking up and more professionals working with children are identifying indicators of abuse and reporting these to authorities. However I believe that other forms of child sexual abuse is increasing such as children in prostitution and children exploited in pornography as well as the online sexual exploitation of children is increasing in Australia . In 1998 Child Wise conducted a national survey and found (anecdotally that there were close to 4000 cases of young people (under 18) engaging in opportunistic prostitution).   

How do you regard the international and national efforts to eliminate the exploitation of children and women in the developingcountries?  

 I believe we are just beginning. IN ten years however we have come a long way. In 1992 when I went to help establish the global ECPAT campaign most people had no idea of the issue of child prostitution and child trafficking. However the world knows now through our efforts. In those days there were no local child protection laws in most developing countries to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation. In 2005 there are laws in most developing countries to protect children. In those days there were no extra territorial laws to prosecute child sex tourists in their own countries but now 45+ counties have these legal provisions to prosecute their nationals for abusing children in other countries. In those days there were no preventative programs at a local level to help prevent sexual abuse, child prostitution and child trafficking. Now there are many programs at national and at local levels. In those days there were no arrests of child sex tourists and child traffickers. Now there have been multiple arrests around the world of these offenders. Yes there have been many many changes to make the world a safer place for children but we have so much further to go. The global problem continues to grows and while governments have committed themselves to protecting children there have not committed enough resources to eliminating this problem especially addressing the root causes of the problem; poverty, lack of access to education and employment and the negative impacts of globalisation. The work has begun but we will be fighting this problem for many years to come and this involves keeping up the pressure on governments around the world to resource this issue properly.   

What would you like to see being done on a global and national scale to address critical issues relating to the abuse of women and children?   

See above, Definitely more resources need to be allocated to addressing the root causes of the problem which renders children and women and children vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Governments need to work together to tackle this international crime and allocate more resources to global law enforcement. More resources and allocation of resources in the right places not just thrown at knee jerk reactions or preventative measures that simply do not work. We need to have a local and global approach which is holistic and not only focus on laws and law enforcement but an approach that builds both the economic and preventative capacity of communities to protect their children.   

Can you describe some of your more innovative child abuse prevention programs and advocacy campaigns against global child sexual abuse and exploitation?   

Lobbying for the enactment of laws such as the Australian child sex tourism law and the sex slavery law as well as tighter immigration regulations for unaccompanied minors. Lobbying for child friendly legal procedures for child witnesses in child sex tourism cases. Lobbying for a specialised Australian Federal Police team to enforce both the child sex tourism law and the sex slavery law. Lobbying for a police hotline for people to report child sex tourism crimes.   

National education campaigns to prevent child sex tourism including Travel with Care and Don't Let Child Abuse Travel which encourages Australian travellers to report child sex tourism where ever they travel. This campaign also has mobilised the tourism industry to support initiatives to prevent the sexual exploitation of children in tourism.   

Encouraging the Australian Government to establish a hotline to report child pornography and a national education campaign on safe use of the Internet.   

Other programs include:   

Child Wise Tourism working in 9 SE Asian countries to prevent child sex tourism. This program has been recognised as a model of international best practice. (there are more details of this program on our website).   

Choose With Care- a capacity building, advisory and training program to build child safe organisations which helps deter and reduce opportunities of child sex offenders gaining access to children through child and youth focussed organisations both in Australia and overseas.   

Ground breaking research on children involved in prostitution in Australia including Speaking for Themselves ( 1998) and Speaking for Themselves (2004)   

Training hotels in Bali in child protection.   

Training social workers, doctors, nurses, teachers, and other professionals and volunteers who work with children on how to counsel and treat children who have been traumatised by sexual abuse and exploitation.   

Can you discuss what was involved in your achievement to secure the enactment of the Child Sex Tourism law in 1994 which makes sex with children overseas a prosecutable offence in Australia?   

Over 14 months I worked closely with trusted journalists to keep this issue in the media and these stories constantly called for the introduction of the child sex tourism law. I pointed to other countries who were doing this (even though Australia was one for the first countries), and encouraged individuals to write letters to politicians calling for the law. I spent much time meeting with many Ministers and politicians and just kept the pressure on.  

What management and leadership skills do you employ in your role as CEO of Child Wise?   

I am a very democratic leader and have a highly skilled and motivated team working with me. I always seek their advice in the development of policy and new programs. I provide my staff with opportunities to be responsible and creative and overall I believe that I am very fair. It has also been important to have a vision that the staff believe in so they know where they are going and ensure that we all communicate on a regular level which is quite challenging when staff are constantly overseas. The staff we have attracted to Child Wise share the same passion that I have to prevent the sexual exploitation of children. Child Wise is also a very child and family friendly workplace and I am very flexible with my staff. 

 How does the concept of leadership sit with you and do you feel that there are essential qualities that one needs to cultivate to be an effective leader?   

I feel that leaders need to have a vision and be able to communicate and involve their staff in this vision. They also need to listen to the views and needs of staff and involve them in decision making. For me I think my passion and dedication to the issue attracted similar people. In the early days when the organisation was small we had few policies and Child Wise was more like a family but now it is a fully fledged organisation and we have very clear and transparent policies and procedures that the staff believe they have been consulted on. Being accessible to staff at any time has been very important when you are running a international development agency so when a staff member has just conducted a very challenging training overseas they can call you at any time and de-brief. I know I am a good leader because I have a vision and am determined and nothing stops me from pursuing this. Over the years I have had to change my style of management to meet the needs of a growing organisation. However I have employed excellent staff both in administration and child protection that ensure greatly assist in Child Wise being well managed and our programs are of a high quality.