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UN: UNICEF Report Shows Rising Level Of Child Sexual Exploitation

  • Robert McMahon

A new report from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is appealing for a global effort to eradicate what it says is a lucrative trade profiting from the sexual exploitation of children. The agency says the problem exists worldwide, with especially high numbers in the former communist countries in transition, which are coping with the related problems of trafficking in women and drugs.

United Nations, 13 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Poverty, organized crime, war, and even the Internet are being blamed for a sharp rise in reported cases of commercial sexual exploitation of children.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) issued a report yesterday that says millions of children have been bought and sold in recent years for use as sex slaves.

The fund says these commercial activities are mostly clandestine so it is difficult to collect accurate data. But UNICEF has compiled reports from governments, media reports and nongovernmental organizations that tell a troubling story.

The UNICEF report was released ahead of a world conference on stamping out the commercial sexual exploitation of children, scheduled for next week in Yokohama, Japan.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has nearly universal ratification, states that a child has the right to be free from abuse, to receive an education, and to play.

The deputy director of UNICEF, Kul Gautam, told a press conference yesterday that governments are not doing enough to meet their commitments under that convention. He said the Yokohama conference aims to galvanize a concerted government effort against the sexual exploitation of children.

"I think there are certain things that are so unacceptable that governments [and] civil society can take action. And I think commercial exploitation of children for sexual purposes is one of those things on which -- if society is vigilant, if there's a zero tolerance sentiment in society -- much can be done."

The International Organization for Migration estimates that at least 700,000 women and children are trafficked each year, one quarter of them -- about 175,000 -- from Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States. UN officials say children increasingly are part of the population of trafficked people.

Poverty, ignorance, and the low status of women all contribute to the trafficking problem. UN officials say it is no coincidence that the two poorest countries in Europe -- Moldova and Albania -- have serious trafficking problems.

The UNICEF report says the problem is especially acute in Albania. It cites a report by the Save the Children aid organization that says an estimated 30,000 Albanians are working abroad as prostitutes -- many of them teenage girls who were coerced or kidnapped, often by Albanian traffickers known to the family.

The report notes that last March, Albania introduced a new law on trafficking but that there are few immediate signs it has been enforced. Police corruption is said to be contributing to the trafficking problem.

UNICEF also cites problems in Lithuania, finding that more than 20 percent of prostitutes are believed to be minors and children as young as 11 are known to work in brothels there. The fund says the prostitution of young boys is well-established in the Czech capital Prague. The majority come from dysfunctional families and have run away from their homes and villages. Their clients, the report says, often include foreign businessmen and politicians.

Of particular concern, the report says, is the fact that more than one million children are growing up in institutions in the former communist region in transition. Many of these countries are seen as unprepared to integrate them.

UNICEF Deputy Director Gautam says developments in the past decade have also made it easier for the commercial sexual trade in children to grow. He said global transportation and communications improvements -- including the rise of the Internet -- have posed a problem in this regard.

"Through the availability and the use of the Internet now, it has become so much easier to publicize and to misuse the Internet for child pornography purposes. That, of course did not exist 10 years ago. That is a new phenomenon and it is one of the bad aspects of globalization, you might say."

To combat these trends, UNICEF officials are calling for more national laws to promote the well-being of children and protect them from abuse. These laws, they say, must be enforced by tough penalties against abusers.

They say UNICEF is trying to improve access to quality education to raise awareness about the problem. It is also supporting programs that have rescued children from brothels and helped in their rehabilitation. It is encouraging transnational partnerships to tackle the criminal cartels involved in trafficking.

The director of UNICEF's office in East Asia and the Pacific, Mehr Khan, says the child trafficking problem has also hurt countries in the region where wealth is distributed unequally. She cited the example of Thailand, where the child sex trade has become especially lucrative.

She says societies must combat the problem through a combination of information campaigns, police training, and reintegration programs for victimized children. "This is not just a problem of foreign tourists arriving in countries. It's also a problem of local behavior which has to change."

UNICEF says victims of child sexual abuse are at high risk of violence, unwanted pregnancy, drugs, and sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS. Their physical and emotional development and self-esteem can also be impaired.