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The ultimate abuse

Young girls work as prostitutes in a poor area of the Nicaraguan capital, Managua.

Article 34 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child calls on all countries to prevent "a) the inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity; b) the exploitative use of children in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices; and c) the exploitative use of children in pornographic performances and materials."

Likened by some to torture in the depth of the damage and trauma it inflicts, the sexual exploitation of children is one of the gravest infringements of rights that children can endure.

Like child labour, it is everywhere. It runs the sordid gamut from incest and sexual abuse by friends and family members to the enforced, servile marriage of the too-young girl, to the systematic commercial plundering of children and young teenagers in lucrative prostitution and pornography markets.

Even in those countries with well- developed law enforcement systems, the organized abuse of children still flourishes. An estimated 300,000 young people below the age of 18 are involved in prostitution in the United States, and child prostitution and pornography are significant problems in parts of Europe and the Russian Federation.

Few children, even those running away from unhappy and violent homes, readily become prostitutes. Many are kidnapped, sold by relatives, or tricked into brothel captivity by promises of legitimate employment. Girls employed as domestic servants may become prostitutes after enduring years of sexual abuse by their employers. Many are transported far from their homes, and some to other countries, where they are isolated by language and their illegal status. Coercion, intimidation, violence, drugs and degradation are used to compel submission.

The physical toll is horrendous, exposing children to the risk of pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. AIDS is a deadly reality for many. In Thailand, one study found that a third of the children involved in prostitution tested HIV-positive.

Local customers may have created the trade, but growing numbers of tourists from industrialized countries are now travelling to the developing world for the purpose of sexually exploiting children.

A review of 160 foreigners arrested in Asia for sexual abuse of children between 1992 and 1994 showed the accused to be 25% American, 18% German, 14% Australian, 12% British, and 6% French. Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Norway, Sweden and the United States now have laws permitting the prosecution of their citizens for sex crimes against children committed outside their countries.

Action to control the sexual exploitation of children has begun on several fronts.

In the Philippines, a 1991 law targets the adult procurers, brothel owners, and abusers of children. Several communities have also created volunteer patrols to monitor bars and brothels for the presence of children.

In India, the Domestic Workers' Movement offers legal protection, education and counselling to its members, many of whom have been sexually abused.

In Recife, Brazil, the Casa de Passagem programme offers drop-in facilities, residential care, counselling and job opportunities for girls living on the streets.

Interpol's Standing Working Party on Offences against Minors shares information between police forces on known paedophiles.

One non-governmental organization, End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT), has been particularly effective in agitating for political action and legal reform. The organization now intends to campaign against child `sex tourism', not just in Asia but worldwide.

There are few reliable figures for the numbers of children involved in prostitution. The following estimates, for a limited number of countries only, serve to illustrate the scale of the problem.

All estimates are for children under 18 except Bangladesh, which covers children aged 12 to 16.

Bangladesh				      10000
Cambodia				       2000
India	    		            400000 - 500000
Pakistan (children from Bangladesh) 	      40000
Philippines				      60000
Sri Lanka				      30000 
Thailand				     100000
United States 				     300000
Viet Nam*				       8000

* Recent estimate (January 1995) by the Ministry of Labour, Government of Viet Nam. The estimate cited by ECPAT in The Progress of Nations 1994 was 40,000.

Sources: United States National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, cited in UNICEF `Breaking the walls of silence a UNICEF background paper on the sexual exploitation of children', July 1994. Asian nations: Ron O'Grady, The rape of the innocent, ECPAT (Thailand), 1994.

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