NEW YORK — Their names are Chandrika, Hamida, Amod, Madhuri, Maria and Jenny. And as varied as these children’s names are their nationalities: Indian, Bangladeshe, Nepalese, Nicaraguan and 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 are annually bought and sold worldwide either into marriage, prostitution or slavery. Approximately 1 million children enter the sex trade every year. And 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. Over the past two years, cases prosecuted by the U.S. government amount to less than 300 victims. In other countries 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 through the border to India each year and end up as sex workers in Bombay or New Delhi. Although the greatest number of children working as prostitutes occurs in Asia, Eastern European children 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 acting as accomplices. 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 very vulnerable.

Commercial sexual exploitation of children is increasing worldwide. There are several causes for this situation, including increasing cross-border trade, poverty, unemployment, the low status of girls, lack of education, inadequate legislation, poor law enforcement and the eroticization of children in the media.

There are also 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 from abusive homes. In countries from East 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 countries in South Asia, traditional practices that perpetuate the low status of women and girls in society form the base of this problem.

Due to the lack of protection, children exploited sexually are prone to sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. In addition, because of conditions in which they live, children can become malnourished, and develop feelings of guilt, inadequacy and depression.

Throughout the world, many individuals and nongovernmental organizations are working intensely for the protection of children’s rights. Many times, their work puts them into conflict with governments and powerful interest groups. Among 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, by improving access to education, particularly for girls, and by advocating the rights of children.

Governments should take action to complement NGO and U.N. efforts to prevent sexual exploitation, including awareness building, provision of social services to exploited children and their families and creation of legal frameworks for the persecution of perpetrators.

Only when this phenomenon is eliminated will we be able to say that children are exercising their right to a healthy and peaceful life.

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