The Sixth East Asia and Pacific Ministerial Consultation on Children was presented with evidence that trafficking and sex exploitation of children was escalating driven by both domestic and foreign demand.
UNICEF told the conference that about one million children, aged 12 to 17, worked in the sex trade in Asia, the largest in the world.
The conference drew about 250 delegates from 25 nations to Bali. Hosted by the Indonesian Government, the conference adopted the Bali Consensus which focused on ways to improve child rights in the region.
Commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking of children was one of five key development priorities examined by the delegates. The others were HIV/AIDS, nutrition, maternal and neo-natal mortality and education.
Earlier the East Asia and Pacific Regional Director of UNICEF, Mehr Khan, told delegates of a mixed result in improving the welfare of children in the region. She gave a positive assessment of the situation in education and health but warned child malnutrition may be worsening, maternal mortality had remained unchanged for a decade, and HIV/AIDS had exceeded UNICEF’s worst projections.
“The epidemic is in fact growing faster than projected and faster than our ability to track it,” she said.
“The situation today is similar to where parts of Africa were 12 years ago both in terms of the growth of the epidemic and the response of Government. This is indeed alarming.”
About two and a half million people suffer HIV/AIDS in East Asia and the Pacific, half are under 25. Unprotected sex and needle sharing among injecting drug users are the main triggers for the epidemic. UNICEF fears that concentrated epidemics in Southern China and Indonesia may spread into the general community.
“The speed at which SARS was transmitted across the region should be a lesson in this regard. The spread of HIV/AIDS is invisible compared with SARS but over the long term is far more dangerous,” Dr Nafis Sadik, UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific said.
A snap shot of statistics throughout the region compiled by UNICEF shows that children are particularly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.
In Indonesia over 80 percent of children between 14-17 have little or no knowledge of HIV/AIDS and 70 percent don’t know what a condom is. In Cambodia half new infections are between husbands and wives, and one third are mother-to-child transmissions. Eleven million children are expected to be AIDS orphans by 2010.
Former injecting drug user and Hepatitis C positive Indonesian drug counselor, Aditya Putra, told the conference much of his knowledge about drugs and sex came from experimentation with his friends.
“Because of that I realized that knowledge is a powerful tool and ally, and I think knowledge will be our best and most positive resource.”
The Executive Director of UNICEF, Carol Bellamy warned: “All the hard-earned gains for children in such areas as poverty reduction, education and nutrition will be swept away if we do not confront the HIV/AIDS threat. I urge you not to leave it until it is too late. The time for action is now.”
A UNICEF report released for the conference, “A Future for All our Children” warns the harsh reality is that too many countries in this region continue to fail their children.
The report acknowledges that the countries of East Asia and the Pacific have taken enormous strides in recent years stating some have achieved almost miraculous levels of economic growth, helping to reshape the global economy. But an even greater commitment was needed to address the continuous challenges for children.
“Poverty reduction and the economic success of our region have been built on solid early achievements in education and health. These must continue in the future,” Mehr Khan said.
The Ministerial Consultation was galvanized by the issue of protecting children from commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking with the Philippines delegation warning that trans-national gangs were responsible.
Professor Jaap Doek, Chairperson of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said, “We must have territorial and extra-territorial jurisdiction to effectively prosecute and punish perpetrators.”
“The UN estimates that in the last 30 years trafficking in women and children for sexual exploitation in Asia alone has victimized more than 30 million people,” he said.
Carol Bellamy said, “There have been some positive developments: the signing or ratification of the Option Protocol on the Sale and Trafficking of Children by nine countries in the region.
“But more needs to be done if we are to combat this business and yes it is a business in which a few profit from the degradation of others, which must rank among the worst violations of child rights in our world.”
The UNICEF Report offered more positive news on the issue of infant mortality. The region is well on its way to substantially reducing under five deaths.
The Regional Director of UNICEF, Mehr Khan said measles was the leading cause of child deaths. She flagged that a vaccination campaign is about to commence in all countries. “Investments in health always pay off,” she said.
The UNICEF Report stated 27 million children in the region were under weight; almost the same number as Sub-Saharan Africa and warned if current trends continued little would change by 2015.
Reducing maternal mortality also was announced by the governments as a priority in the region. Little progress has been made, and although a complex issue, UNICEF has identified a lack of priority for women’s health and the lack of emergency obstetric care in rural areas as major causes.
“Poverty reduction is now slower than income growth. Many of the world poorest and most deprived children live in our region. They are mostly rural and ethnic minority children. They must be at the centre of future economic planning.” Ms Khan said.
Carol Bellamy also said, “There will be challenges and setbacks. And it is precisely for that reason that business as usual will not be enough. To succeed, we will have to go farther and push harder than ever before.”
The Sixth Ministerial Consultation on Children was opened Monday, May 5, by the President of Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri.
President Megawati warned delegates that social and economic pressures and in some instances conflicts or wars, have compelled almost 250 million children globally to work for their survival.
“Among them many become victims of sexual exploitation or trading. Meanwhile the spread of HIV/AIDS have also attacked many children.”
A key feature of the Consultation was the participation of children. Seventeen young delegates attended the conference and six young journalists covered it.
Three young people from the host nation, Indonesia, received the first UNICEF Award for Youth Leadership in the East Asia and Pacific Region for their efforts advancing child rights.
“I hope the Awards will grow in stature in the East Asia and Pacific region and that governments will recognize that children can and should participate in decisions which affect their lives,” Carol Bellamy said.
The Conference adopted unanimously the Bali Consensus, a plan for all 25 nations and UNICEF to work towards improving child rights in the region.