One of the worst tragedies of post-Soviet Russia has been the increase in child abuse, particularly child prostitution. Besides the moral and ethical implications, the impact that sexual exploitation has on children’s health and future development demands urgent attention. It is a problem that shows no signs of abating.
Sexual abuse of children takes several forms. They are used in pornographic publications and films and exploited as prostitutes. They are also trafficked to other countries, particularly in the Middle East.
Victims of child sexual abuse are often lured by the fake promise of being published in mainstream fashion magazines. Some victims believe that prostitution and contact with rich businessmen will allow them the kind of lifestyle that they could not have otherwise.
Russia is now one of the main producers of child pornography in the world, and it registers significant incidences of child prostitution and child trafficking for sexual purposes, according to the Russian National Consultation on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children.
St. Petersburg and northwestern Russia report a high incidence of sex tourism, which is widely advertised on the Internet and is aimed at people from neighboring Scandinavian countries. Child prostitution is the most common form of child exploitation in that region.
Those who recruit children for sexual exploitation frequently target street children or children from dysfunctional families. They initiate a vicious circle of entrapment and, as they become older, children end up in brothels. The recruiters prey on these children’s needs and deceive them into a life of dependency.
In Russia, many of the young prostitutes are from the provinces or from the former Soviet republics. They come to Moscow or to St. Petersburg hoping to hide in the anonymity of huge cities. Sometimes pregnant or with children, and with scant education or skills, children turn to prostitution as an essential tool for survival.
Children engaged in prostitution frequently belong to families at risk — those in extreme poverty or with alcohol and drug addiction. In other cases, they are orphans who have made the street their homes.
Many adults who sexually abuse children believe that by engaging with children, they are protected against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Children are less prone to practice safe sex, however, either because they don’t think they need it or because they are unable to oppose the pressure or intimidation from adults.
Because of the transnational character of transactions involving children, it is imperative to strengthen international collaboration to counter the sexual abuse of children. Although Russia has signed and ratified important international conventions, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, it has not yet developed a national plan of action against commercial sexual exploitation of children.
The Angel Coalition, one of the few Russian nongovernmental organization working solely to combat human trafficking, has produced a video called “Inhuman Traffic,” with the participation of actress Angelina Jolie. The documentary gives a shocking view of the tragedy of trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation in Russia and all across Europe. Moreover, it gives an insight into the trafficking chain and how it can be broken. It should be required viewing for all government officials who are involved in combating this scourge.
On May 11, 2011, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, called on lawmakers to consider “chemical castration” for pedophiles, following an unprecedented wave of sexual crimes against minors in the country, including the violent death of child victims. In October 2011, the Russian parliament approved a law on pedophilia, according to which those found guilty of sex crimes against children under 14 will face chemical castration, while repeated sex offenders will face a life sentence.
Child abuse in Russia is an issue that demands concerted and long-term actions to prevent it. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is clear in the need to respect the rights of children, and by following its directives Russia can take an important step in the battle against the abuse of society’s most vulnerable members.
Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant and a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.