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At a glance: Guatemala

Protecting girls from sexual exploitation in Guatemala

UNICEF Image: Guatemala
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Casa Alianza Guatemala is a UNICEF-supported organization that protects children in need.

The World Congress III against the Sexual Exploitation of Children, set for 25-28 November 2008 in Brazil, aims to promote international cooperation for more effective action on sexual exploitation. Here is one in a series of related stories.

By Thomas Nybo

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala, 25 November 2008 – On the dark streets of the capital city of Guatemala, away from the main thoroughfares, young girls as sell their bodies for money. In hundreds of bars, brothels and hotels across the city, an estimated 2,000 children are being sexually exploited and the law has been doing little to protect them.

Many of the girls were sold into the sex trade by family members. Others became desperate after being kicked out of their homes at a young age. Children are vulnerable to sex traffickers who often lure them with the promise conventional jobs that never materialize.

Once they have entered the sex trade, it is difficult for children to escape. A formidable combination of poverty, substance abuse and accumulated debt often leaves them feeling trapped and with few alternatives.

‘That’s how it started’

Ana María (not her real name) was abandoned by her mother at the age of six. She lived for years on the street, struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. Feeling hopeless, she took a job as a sex worker in a night club.

“I met a man when I was nine-and-a-half years old,” says Ana Maria, who is now 17. “He worked at a night club and he took me with him – that's how it started.”

Ana María was forced to work in a filthy brothel, where the woman in charge deducted inflated expenses to supposedly cover room and board. By the end of the month, after expenses, she had little to show for her work. Eventually, Ana María returned to the street.

Legislation to protect children

Her situation is all too common in Guatemala, a country with no serious laws against the sexual exploitation of children.

“Globally, children's sexual exploitation is considered a serious crime, condemned beyond national borders. Nevertheless, in Guatemala it is not considered a crime. The traffickers are sanctioned with a small fine” says UNICEF Representative Adriano González-Regueral.

Too often, the child victims of sex crimes here are labeled by society as the criminals, while the adult perpetrators walk free.  UNICEF is working to get legislation enacted – and enforced - that will finally offer protection to girls like Ana María. But the legislative gears grind slowly in Guatemala. The most serious and complete of the proposed laws was presented to congress in August: 'The Law Against Sexual Violence, Exploitation and Trafficking'.

“UNICEF is working with the tourism industry, with academics, with the government and with civil society to build awareness about what constitutes sexual exploitation, where it can be found and what can be done to stop it,” says UNICEF Guatemala Child Protection Specialist Justo Solorzano.

A long way to go

For the past five months, Ana Maria has been under the care of Casa Alianza Guatemala, a UNICEF supported organization that protects children in need, especially those who have suffered physical and psychological abuse. The goal is to integrate the children back into mainstream society, preferably with their families whenever possible.

“Casa Alianza started working in Guatemala 27 years ago,” said Executive Director of Casa Alianza Guatemala Claudia Rivera. “We have several programs to work in prevention, to work at the streets directly. And we also have a program that looks for justice at the court for the children.”

The road ahead for girls like Ana Maria is difficult. She's been free of drugs and alcohol for many months, and she's already received basic vocational training. But she feels she still has a long way to go.

“I don't think I'll return to the sex trade,” she says, now hopeful for her future. “I want to give my daughters a good example. I feel strongly that I don't want my girls to go the same direction that I did.”




4 November 2008:
UNICEF correspondent Thomas Nybo reports on the lives of street children in Guatemala, and the lack of protection for those who become victims of trafficking.
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