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A Kiss is Not a Kiss: Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Children

The recent denunciations by several young women who claimed that they were sexually abused by Senate nominee Roy S. Moore, some of them when they were younger than 18 years-old, underscore the widespread nature of this phenomenon. What makes it even more serious, is that it involves all social and economic groups of people, mostly men, who can do permanent damage to their victims.

Sexual abuse of children, many of whom are then forced to go into prostitution, is a worldwide phenomenon that can take several forms. In some cases, the parents of children involved are led to believe by traffickers that their children will become domestic workers or waitresses in the countries’ big cities.

Throughout the world, organized groups kidnap children and sell them to go 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.

Malika Saada Saar, executive director of Rights4Girls, makes an important clarification regarding sexually abused children. According to her, those girls that are repeatedly raped, abused and exploited are not child prostitutes but rather they are victims and survivors of child rape, deserving all legal protections and support services.

Excessive materialism, however, may also play a role in some cases. 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 afford otherwise. This is a difficult problem to solve, because in those situations school children go voluntarily into prostitution, and don’t see themselves necessarily 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 as abused workers.

For the past two years in the United States, the Government has prosecuted only a handful of cases, involving less than a few hundred 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 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 upheaval 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. In Nepal, 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.

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 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, 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.

Because their tissues are more easily torn, children exploited sexually are prone to have 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 are, 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.

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’ policies and actions to solve this problem. The prevention of sexual exploitation should be carried out through social mobilization and awareness-building, the provision of social services to exploited children and their families, the creation of the legal framework and building capacity for psycho-social counseling and for the appropriate prosecution of perpetrators. It is only by openly discussing it and exposing child sexual abuse that we will eventually stop and eradicate it.

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Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”

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