NEW YORK — One of the regrettable consequences of the uneven economic expansion that Russia has experienced in recent times has been the increase in child abuse, particularly child prostitution.
This has been fueled by the significant influx of foreigners coming to Russia for business transactions. Besides the moral and ethical implications, the impact that sexual exploitation has on children’s health and future development demands urgent attention. It is a problem that shows no signs of abating.
Sexual abuse of children can take several forms — from their use in pornographic materials for sale, to their use in other countries and Russia itself as prostitutes. Lured by fake promises in fashion magazines, some schoolgirls rate prostitution high on the list of modern “professions” to pursue. They believe that prostitution and contact with rich businessmen will provide them with the kind of lifestyle that they could never expect otherwise.
According to the Russian National Consultation on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, Russia is now one of the main producers of pornography in the world, and registers a significant number of incidents related to child prostitution or child trafficking for sexual purposes.
Although the real number is difficult to assess, experts believe that tens of thousands of children are involved in the production of pornographic materials in Russia today. These materials are frequently produced by small criminal groups, each fulfilling a specific task to keep the costs of production low compared to those of a regular startup business. The production and consumption of these materials are particularly pronounced in big cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg.
According to experts, almost a quarter of the pornography on global Internet sites contains child pornography. Among these, almost 50 percent include child pornography from Russia. Nowadays, it is possible to buy videocassettes of child pornography at any railway station or in several stores in these cities.
St. Petersburg and the northwest region of Russia report a high incidence of sex tourism, which is widely advertised on the Internet and aimed at people from neighboring Scandinavian countries. Prostitution is the most common form of child exploitation in the region.
Frequent recruiting targets are street children or children from dysfunctional families. Once they’re entrapped, they may end up in brothels and red-light districts as they get older. Recruiters prey on these children’s situations, deceiving them into a life of dependency.
In Russia, many young prostitutes are from the provinces or from the former Soviet republics. They come to Moscow or to St. Petersburg hoping to hide in the anonymity of the population. Occasionally pregnant or with children, and with scant education or skills, they see prostitution as an essential tool for survival.
Children engaged in prostitution frequently belong to families in extreme poverty, and characterized by alcohol and drug addiction or a hostile family atmosphere. In other cases, they are orphans who have made the street their home.
Many adults sexually abuse children in the belief that children are protected against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. However, children are less prone to practice safe sex, either because they don’t think they need to or because they are unable to oppose the will of adults with whom they deal.
Because of the transnational character of transactions involving children, it is imperative to strengthen international collaboration to counter child sexual abuse. At the same time, although Russia has signed and ratified important international conventions, such as the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, it has not yet developed a national plan of action against “commercial sexual exploitation of children.”
The Angel Coalition, the only Russian nongovernmental organization working solely to combat human trafficking, has produced a program called “Inhuman Traffic” with the collaboration of actress Angelina Jolie. The documentary gives a compelling view of the tragedy of the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation in Europe and offers insight into how the chain of trafficking can be broken. It should be required viewing for government officials charged with controlling this scourge.
Cesar Chelala, M.D., is an international public health consultant and a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights. He is the author of “AIDS: A Modern Epidemic.”