By Lin Taylor
SUVA, Dec 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sera was nine when she was raped and sought help from her family in Fiji only to be told that the attack was her fault and the crime was glossed over.
But the attack had a devastating impact on Sera who left home a few years later and ended up sharing a house with other runaways who were forced to sell sex and give part of their earnings to the landlord.
Sera, now 22, is one of many victims of commercial child sex exploitation in the Pacific island nation whose plight is overlooked as those responsible are often known to the victim, such as a relative or a family friend, say charities.
She is hoping, however, that going public with her story will help others come forward and prompt action by the authorities as it is an offence for anyone to buy or hire a child under 18 for sex with a possible 12 year jail sentence.
"I want to speak out on behalf of victims of child sexual exploitation who are unable to speak out," Sera - who didn't wish to use her real name or say where her family lived - told a conference co-hosted by rights group CIVICUS this week.
"My family was not supportive. I was blamed for it. I felt like I was responsible, I felt used."
Iris Low-McKenzie, head of aid group Save The Children Fiji, said child prostitution and trafficking is rife in the Pacific but it is often hard for younsters to report abuse to the police as it is culturally taboo to speak negatively against an elder.
This taboo around child sexual exploitation means there are no figures on how many are sold for sex across the region, said anti-child trafficking group ECPAT International.
The U.S. State Department in its 2016 Fiji Human Rights Report said commercial sexual exploitation of children continues to happen in Fiji but there were no prosecutions or convictions for trafficking children during the year.
"Family members, other Fijian citizens, foreign tourists, and crewmembers on foreign fishing vessels also reportedly participated in the prostitution of Fijian children," the report said.
Sandy Thompson from ECPAT International in the Pacific said it was a culturally difficult subject for people to talk about.
"It is happening in the Pacific region but no-one's really named it or talked about it before," she said.
Lynnie Roche, co-founder of Homes of Hope in Fiji which supports girls forced into prostitution or trafficked, said girls as young as eight have been made to sell sex on the street by their families or family friends.
She cited the example of a 10-year-old girl, who moved in with her aunt and was pimped out to neighbours so her aunt could pay for rent. She was kicked out when she became pregnant at 17.
Another girl was given to her father's boss for sex out of fear he would lose his job. Roche said the young girl was raped until she became pregnant.
"No 11-year-old asks to become pregnant. No eight-year-old stands on the street by choice ... that's something that's designed by adults so that they benefit," she said.
Sera said she spent years trapped in sexual exploitation before she could talk about her experience.
"I knew I had to make a choice because I was on the edge. It's the feeling when you can't take it anymore," said Sera, who is currently supported by Homes of Hope.
(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)
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