Cheryl Perera was just 16 when she learned that a global sex trade in children was flourishing. “I was researching for a high school project,” she recalls. “I went to the library, borrowed a book and as I was flipping through the book, my eyes became transfixed on a description of the child sex industry in Thailand. I was horrified and enraged.” Wanting to obtain an insider's look into the child sex trade, Cheryl embarked on a fact-finding mission to her native Sri Lanka where she partnered with the law enforcement and played the main role of the decoy - a 15 prostituted child - in a STING operation that ended in the successful apprehension of a child sex predator.
But she soon realized that letting her anger get the best of her wouldn't help these children in any way, so she decided to channel it into positive change. “I was 17 – but I thought if other young people learned about this violation of the rights of the child, they would want to help their peers,” says Cheryl. OneChild harnesses youth power – and some very influential adults as well – to spread awareness, lobby their governments and the private sector, and raise funds to rescue, rehabilitate, and empower survivors.
That's when Cheryl founded One Child in 2005, with the mantra that “even one child exploited is one child too many”, with the mission to mobilize and empower a global movement of children and youth to combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children through education, advocacy, and prevention, rehabilitation and reintegration. She is a pioneer, having sparked Canada's anti-child sex tourism movement by launching the first-ever campaign to lobby the travel industry to take action against child sex tourism. Her next steps are to expand rehabilitation and reintegration services in Asia; expand child rights training and leadership training for survivors in Canada to transform into advocates, and bring national service providers together to explore how young people can be meaningfully engaged in anti-sexual exploitation programming and policy.