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A Kiss is not a Kiss

The Perennial Scourge of Children's Prostitution
by Dr. Cesar Chelala

Their names are Chandrika, Hamida, Amod, Madhuri, María and Jenny. Their nationalities are as varied as their names: Indian, Bangladeshe, Nepalese, Nicaraguan -- North American. What unites them is that they have been made to work as prostitutes and, in the process, have endangered their lives and well being and seriously compromised their futures. Because of basic moral and ethical questions, and because of this situation's impact on children's health and future development, it demands special and urgent attention.

Forcing or enticing children to go into prostitution can take several forms. In some cases, the parents of children involved in prostitution are led to believe by traffickers that their children will become domestic workers or waitresses. Journalist Jan Goodwin reported the case of Bibi, an 11-year-old girl. Bibi was brought from Mumbai to Calcutta by two men, who promised Bibi's father that they would take care of her and find her work. Instead, they sold the girl to a brothel owner who told her that she couldn't leave unless she paid him back his purchase price plus interest. Recounting her first night at the brothel she said, "I didn't even have breasts yet, but men forced me to have sex. They hurt me badly. I cried for the first two years I was there."

Throughout the world, organized groups kidnap children and sell them into prostitution in neighboring countries, with border officials and police being accomplices in this process. Because of their often undocumented status, language deficiencies and lack of legal protection, kidnapped children are particularly vulnerable in the hands of smugglers or corrupt government officials.

Abject poverty sometimes forces parents to sell their children to unscrupulous merchants of sex. As Durga Ghimere, head of ABC Nepal, an agency that helps former sex slaves declared, "If a father has five daughters, he sells two of them to feed the other three." Rin, a Thai child now 18, was forced into prostitution by her own mother ­who was heavily indebted - when she was 9 years old. Although initially she refused to do it, her mother too her out of school and repeatedly asked her "to do the job." In the end, feeling pity for her mother, she gave in.

Although poverty is an important motivating factor, it is not the only one. Excessive materialism and consumerism play significant roles, particularly when spiritual values are neglected. In a survey carried out in the north of Thailand some children expressed that they would like to work as prostitutes when they grow up. Many girls dream of working in Bangkok and, since they do not have any special training, work as prostitutes to be able to afford beautiful clothes and jewelry, something they wouldn't be able to do other wise. Montri Sintavichai, who runs a home for abused children in Bangkok finds that this is a difficult problem to solve because increasingly school children go voluntarily into prostitution, and don't see themselves as victims.

It is estimated that, annually, 4 million women and girls are bought and sold worldwide either into marriage, prostitution or slavery. Approximately one million children enter the sex trade (although most are girls, boys are also involved) every year. And as many as 50,000 women and children from Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe are brought to the United States and forced to work as prostitutes, servants or abused workers. For the past two years in the United States, the Government has prosecuted only a handful of cases involving less than 300 victims. In other countries where this problem is frequent, the prosecution rate is even lower.

According to UNICEF, 10,000 girls annually enter Thailand from other countries in the region (Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Southern China), and end up as sexual workers. They are just a fraction of the estimated 800,000 to 2,000,000 prostitutes now working in Thailand, a significant proportion of them coming from Burma. The number of Burmese women and girls working as prostitutes in Thailand has increased considerably in recent years. Among the reasons are increased political repression in Burma and worsening economic conditions. The children more likely to be exploited are those from tribal groups and ethnic minorities, as well as those that become refugees.

Between 5,000 and 7,000 Nepali girls are transported through the border to India each year and end up in commercial sex work in Mumbai, Bombay or New Delhi. In 1982, the case of Tulasa, a young Nepali girl who was abducted from Nepal and sent to brothels in Bombay, called attention to the extent of police complicity in trafficking from Nepal to India. The girl, who had been abducted by an acquaintance when she was thirteen, was beaten into submission and sold to three different brothels in Bombay. 

The girl was abused until she collapsed and had to be sent to Bombay's J.J. Hospital for treatment. In that hospital, she was diagnosed as suffering from three different venereal diseases and tuberculosis. She was given police protection at the hospital from possible reprisals from brothel owners and afterwards was sent back to Nepal, where she took residence at the Chesire Home for the disabled in Jorpatti. Medical evaluation found her to be severely damaged both physically and psychologically. Because of the notoriety of the case it was possible to successfully prosecute those involved. 

Following the outcry provoked by her case, the governments of India and Nepal signed an agreement addressing the issue of Nepali girls trafficked into Indian brothels. According to information gathered by Human Rights Watch/Asia, senior police officials acknowledged that there is political pressure, or perceived political pressure in Nepal to be lenient to accused traffickers. In India, police in Bombay were accused of rarely conducting formal raids in the city's red-light districts.

Although the greatest number of children working as prostitutes occurs in Asia, Eastern European children (from countries such as Russia, Poland, Romania, Hungary and the Czech Republic) are increasingly vulnerable. According to estimates, more than 2 million children under 18 are involved in prostitution worldwide, of which 1 million are in Asia and 300,000 in the United States.

Commercial sexual exploitation of children is increasing worldwide. There are several causes for this situation which include increased trade across national borders, poverty, unemployment, low status of girls, lack of education (including sexual education) of children and their parents, inadequate legislation, lack of or poor law enforcement, and eroticization of children by the media, a phenomenon increasingly seen in industrialized countries. 

There are also special social and cultural reasons for children entering into the sex trade in different regions of the world. In industrialized countries, children may enter the sex trade because they are fleeing from abusive homes. In countries from East and Southern Africa, children who became orphans as a result of AIDS frequently lack the protection of care-givers and are, therefore, more vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation. In countries in South Asia, traditional practices that perpetuate the low status of women and girls in society are at the base of this problem. A history of bonded labor and the caste system in India mean that children belonging to lower castes are more likely to be trafficked. 

Increasingly, children's prostitution is related to tourism. In Brazil, according to social worker Maria Pinto Leal, "sexual exploitation of minors occurs in networks of prostitution and trafficking, pornography and sexual tourism." In urban centers in Brazil, children and teenagers frequently enter prostitution to escape from situations of family violence and extreme poverty.

Violence in the family is a frequent precursor of prostitution. In Chile, a study found that physical violence in the family was present in 63% of surveyed homes. In 1997, more than 37,000 children received treatment in private or public institutions for causes connected to prostitution. In Colombia, a country plagued by chronic violence, the International Police (Interpol) estimated that 35,000 children and teenagers are involved in prostitution. In Nicaragua and Honduras, still reeling from the effects of past wars and natural disasters, child prostitution is a growing phenomenon affecting all sectors of society.

In the United States the phenomenon is a growing problem affecting younger children, who are lured by pimps into prostitution. It is estimated that between 100,000 and 300,000 children are sexually exploited through prostitution or pornography. Many among those children are runaways who have suffered rape, incest or abuse in their homes. A survey commissioned by the Atlanta Journal Constitution found that the number of child prostitutes in the nation's juvenile courts has increased since 1995. A U.S. attorney's investigation into child prostitution in Atlanta has uncovered the serious extent of this phenomenon where children - some as young as ten - are sold by pimps for sex.

Because their tissues are more easily torn, children exploited sexually are prone to sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS. A study conducted in Thailand found that a third of the children involved in prostitution were HIV-positive. Concern about AIDS among customers has driven the sex industry to supply younger girls, who can be sold as virgins and, therefore, free from AIDS. In addition, because of the special conditions in which they live, children involved in prostitution can become malnourished, and develop feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and mental depression.


Throughout the world, many individuals and NGOs are working intensely for the protection of children's rights. In the Philippines, several communities have volunteer patrols that monitor bars and brothels for the presence of children. The Domestic Workers Movement in India provides legal protection, education and counseling to its members, many of whom have been victims of sexual abuse. In Central America, Casa Alianza, whose headquarters are in San Joseacute;, Costa Rica's capital city, has been very active in the protection of children and works intensely in their reeducation and in facilitating their access to job opportunities. Many times, the work of these organizations puts them in conflict with governments and powerful interest groups. 

Bruce Harris, Casa Alianza's executive director, is particularly critical of government officials' lack of response to its children's sexual exploitation. Following the arrest in May 1998 of a 55 year-old-man accused of abusing minors, Harris said, "We have been trying to draw the attention of the region's governments to the growing levels of sex trade and sexual exploitation of children in Central America but almost without exception the issue is falling in deaf ears." According to Harris, "There is a significant increase in the number of cases of sexual abuse of street boys and girls by foreign nationals in the countries we are working [Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua]. Among those foreigners are growing numbers of American citizens. It seems to us that Central America is being seen as a haven for sick adults who wish to sexually exploit little children."

Among the UN agencies, UNICEF has been particularly active in calling attention to this phenomenon. It is addressing the root causes of sexual exploitation by providing economic support to families, by improving access to education, particularly for girls, and by becoming a strong advocate for the rights of the child. UNICEF supports the Protection Project, sponsored by the Women and Public Policy Program of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The project's main objective is to research national and international legislation protecting women and children from commercial sexual exploitation. Through this project, it is expected that baseline information will be obtained on related laws world-wide. 

The work of NGOs and UN agencies such as UNICEF should be a complement to governments' actions to solve this problem. Those actions should include the prevention of sexual exploitation through social mobilization and awareness building, the provision of social services to exploited children and their families, and the creation of the legal framework and building capacity for psycho-social counseling and for the appropriate prosecution of perpetrators. As Harris stated, "It is only by discussing and exposing child sexual exploitation that we will eventually stop and eradicate it." 

Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international medical consultant residing in New York. He writes extensively on human rights issues and foreign affairs. He is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights. He is the author of the Pan American Health Organization publication "Children's Health in the Americas."

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