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Abuse taking a growing toll on children worldwide

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — It is a sad paradox that one of the most famous entertainers in the world today should be charged with abusing a child. If Michael Jackson, accused of abusing a boy at his Neverland ranch in California, is found guilty, the verdict will be a tremendous blow to his career.

Even if he is proven innocent, however, his case will have served to direct renewed attention to the issue of sexual abuse of children and the need to implement more effective measures to prevent it.

The sexual abuse of children can take several forms — from incestuous abuse at home to the use of children (both girls and boys) as prostitutes.

Although poverty is an important motivating factor, it is not the only one driving children into abusive situations. Excessive materialism and consumerism play significant roles.

In a survey carried out in the north of Thailand, some children expressed the wish to work as prostitutes when they grow up. Many girls dream of working in Bangkok and, since they do not have any special training, work as prostitutes to be able to afford beautiful clothes and jewelry, something they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.

Because their body tissues are more easily infected and damaged, children exploited sexually are prone to sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. A study conducted in Thailand found that one-third of the children involved in prostitution were HIV-positive.

Concern about AIDS among customers has driven the sex industry to supply younger girls, who can be sold as virgins and, therefore, free of AIDS. Because of the special conditions in which they live, children involved in prostitution can become malnourished and develop feelings of guilt, inadequacy and depression.

Commercial sexual exploitation of children is increasing worldwide. The reasons include increased trade across national borders, unemployment, low status of girls, lack of education (including sexual 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.

It is estimated that 4 million women and girls annually are bought and sold worldwide either into marriage, prostitution or slavery. Every year approximately 1 million children enter the sex trade (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, servants or abused workers.

Although the greatest number of children working as prostitutes occurs in Asia, Eastern European children (from countries such as Russia, Poland, Romania, Hungary and the Czech Republic) are increasingly vulnerable.

According to estimates, more than 2 million children under 18 are involved in prostitution worldwide, of which 1 million are in Asia and 300,000 in the U.S.

Throughout the world, many individuals and nongovernment organizations are working intensely for the protection of children’s rights.

In the Philippines, several communities have volunteer patrols that monitor bars and brothels for the presence of children. The Domestic Workers Movement in India provides legal protection, education and counseling to its members, many of whom have been victims of sexual abuse.

In Central America, Casa Alianza (with headquarters in San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital city) has been very active in protecting children and works intensely to re-educate them and facilitate their access to job opportunities.

The work of NGOs and U.N. agencies such as UNICEF includes efforts to prevent sexual exploitation through social mobilization and awareness building, to provide social services that build mechanisms for psychological and social counseling for exploited children and their families, and to create a legal framework for the prosecution of perpetrators.

A more serious commitment from governments is needed to eliminate or limit this scourge. As Bruce Harris, the director of Casa Alianza, has stated, “It is only by discussing and exposing child sexual exploitation that we will eventually stop and eradicate it.”