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Children’s Trafficking and Exploitation is a Persistent, Dreary Phenomenon

Child trafficking and exploitation are again in the news after the Wall Street trader Jeffrey Epstein was charged on July 8 with sex trafficking crimes involving dozens of minors. Among the latest accusation is one by Jennifer Araoz, 32, who said that Epstein raped her when she was 15, and she had been working at his home giving him massages. After the incident, Araoz became profoundly depressed, had anxiety and panic attacks, and had to drop out of school shortly afterward. Her case is just one of the many cases being investigated against the New York financial adviser.

Children’s trafficking and exploitation is a widespread phenomenon that is causing enormous suffering throughout the world. It can take several forms such as forced labor, sexual exploitation and child begging, among other practices. It is estimated that 4 million women and girls worldwide are bought and sold each year either into marriage, prostitution or slavery. Over one million children enter the sex trade every year. Although most are girls, boys are also victims.

The extent of the problem

A report presented to the European Parliament showed that in Egypt criminal gangs kidnap African migrants and subject them to the worst kind of abuses, and reclaim steep ransoms from their families. It is estimated that between 25,000 to 30,000 people were trafficked in the Sinai Peninsula between 2009 and 2013.

In the United States, as many as 50,000 women and children from Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe are brought to the country and forced to work as servants or prostitutes. The US government has prosecuted cases involving hundreds of victims. In other countries where this problem is frequent, the prosecution rate is lower.

Child sex tourism is an aspect of this worldwide phenomenon, and it is concentrated in Asia and Central and South America. According to UNICEF, 10,000 girls annually enter Thailand from neighboring countries and end up as sex workers. Thailand’s Health System Research Institute reports that children make up 40% of those working in prostitution in Thailand. And between 5,000 and 7,000 Nepali girls are transported across the border to India each year and end up in commercial sex work in Mumbai or New Delhi.

Commercial sexual exploitation

Although the greatest number of children forced to work as prostitutes is in Asia, Eastern European children from countries such as Russia, Poland, Romania, Hungary and the Czech Republic, are increasingly unwilling victims.

As a social and pathological phenomenon, prostitution involving children does not show signs of abating. In many cases, not only individual traffickers but also organized groups kidnap children and sell them into prostitution, with border officials and police frequently serving as accomplices.

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 and heartless government officials. “Trafficking is a very real threat to millions of children around the world, especially to those who have been driven from their homes and communities without adequate protection,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.

Commercial sexual exploitation of children is a growing problem worldwide. The reasons include increased trade across borders, poverty, unemployment, low status of girls, lack of education (including sex education) of children and their parents, inadequate legislation, poor law enforcement and the eroticization of children by the media, a phenomenon increasingly seen in industrialized countries.

Consequences of sexual exploitation of children

Social and cultural reasons force children into entering the sex trade in different regions of the world. In many cases, children from industrialized countries enter the sex trade because they are fleeing abusive homes. In countries of Eastern and Southern Africa, children who became orphans as a result of AIDS frequently lack the protection of caregivers and become, therefore, more vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation.

In South Asia, traditional practices that perpetuate the low status of women and girls in society fuel this problem. Children exploited sexually are prone to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS. In addition, because of the conditions in which they live, children can become malnourished, and develop feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and depression.

Besides the moral and ethical implications, the impact that sexual exploitation has on children’s health and future development demand urgent attention. Throughout the world, many individuals and nongovernmental organizations are working intensely for the protection of children’s rights. Many times, their work puts them in conflict with governments and powerful interest groups.

Policies to protect children

There is general agreement that a victim-centered human rights approach is the best possible strategy to address this problem. Its focus should be punishing the exploiter and protecting and rehabilitating the child.

UNICEF has been particularly active in calling attention to children’s exploitation and in addressing its root causes. This organization provides economic support to families so that their children will not be at risk of sexual exploitation; it improves access to education, particularly for girls, and is a strong advocate for children’s rights.

The work of nongovernmental organizations and U.N. agencies should be complemented by governments’ actions. Those actions should include preventing sexual exploitation through social mobilization and awareness building, providing social services to exploited children and their families, and creating the legal framework and resources for psychosocial counseling and for the appropriate prosecution of perpetrators. The elimination of children’s exploitation is a daunting task, but one that is achievable if effective policies and programs are put in place.

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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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