THEIR NAMES are Chandrika, Hamida, Amod, Madhuri, Maria or Jenny. And as
varied as these children's names are their nationalities: Indian, Bangladeshi,
Nepalese, Nicaraguan or North American. What unites them is that they have
been made to work as prostitutes and, in the process, have endangered their
lives and well-being and seriously compromised their future.
It is estimated that 4 million women and girls worldwide are bought and
sold each year -- either into marriage, prostitution or slavery. Approximately
1 million children enter the sex trade every year. (Although most are girls;
boys are also involved.)
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 or
servants. In the United States during the past two years, the government has
prosecuted cases involving fewer than 300 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 neighboring
countries and end up as sex workers. 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, Bombay or New Delhi.
Although the greatest number of children working as prostitutes is in Asia,
Eastern European children from Eastern European countries, such as Russia,
Poland, Romania, Hungary and the Czech Republic, are increasingly vulnerable.
As a social pathological phenomenon, prostitution involving children does
not show signs of abating. In many cases, organized groups kidnap children and
sell them into prostitution, with border officials and police serving as
In her 1997 report to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the U.N. Special
Rapporteur on Violence Against Women called attention to the levels of state
participation and complicity in the trafficking of women and children across
borders. 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.
Commercial sexual exploitation of children is increasing worldwide. There
are several reasons. These include increased trade across borders, poverty,
unemployment, low status of girls, lack of education (including sex education)
of children and their parents, inadequate legislation, lack of or poor law
enforcement and the 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 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 are, therefore, more vulnerable to sexual abuse and
exploitation. In South Asia, traditional practices that perpetuate the low
status of women and girls in society are at the base of this problem. Children
exploited sexually are prone to sexually transmitted diseases and 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 demands urgent
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.
Among the U.N. agencies, UNICEF has been particularly active in calling
attention to this phenomenon and in addressing the root causes of sexual
exploitation by providing economic support to families so that their children
will not be at risk of sexual exploitation, by improving access to education --
particularly for girls -- and by becoming a strong advocate for the rights of
The work of such nongovernmental organizations and U.N. agencies should be
a complement to governments' actions to solve this problem. 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.
Only when this phenomenon is eliminated, will we be able to say that the
world's children are exercising their right to a healthy, and peaceful, life.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international medical consultant residing in New York.
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle