World

A fight to save the children

Activists battle the sexual exploitation of kids

JOE CHIDLEY September 2 1996
World

A fight to save the children

Activists battle the sexual exploitation of kids

JOE CHIDLEY September 2 1996

Maria speaks almost longingly of her youth, spent largely in the squalor of Smokey Mountain, formerly a notorious slum in Manila whose residents made do by selling trinkets they scavenged from the area’s huge garbage dumps. “We were happy,” recalls Maria (not her real name), “even if we were poor, because my father was so loving.” But then tragedy struck: Maria’s mother ran off with another man, and her father died suddenly. Maria went to live on the streets. And one night in Luneta park—a well-known hunting ground for commercial sex—she met a group of men who said they would save her. “They promised me an education,” she says. “I wanted to take a course in computer science.” Instead, the men—not good Samaritans at all, but pimps—drugged Maria and hustled her off to a hotel in Manila’s red-light district. Hours later, she awoke with a searing pain between her legs. “My clothes were still on except for my panties,” she says. “All they gave me as payment for that sexual encounter was a new dress.”

Overnight, Maria had become one of an estimated 60,000 child prostitutes in the Philippines. She was 14.

Now, at 19, Maria is in a Manila jail, awaiting trial for loitering. When she gets out, she swears that she will not return to prostitution. But there are plenty of other stories, just like Maria’s, still in the making. Around the world, millions of child prostitutes, most living in appalling conditions, are subject to horrible abuse and the near-certain prospect of debilitating or life-threatening disease. The numbers involved are staggering. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, one million children under age 18 work as prostitutes in Asia. In Thailand alone, other welfare agencies have estimated, as many as 800,000 children work in the sex trade. In the United States, UNICEF says, 300,000 children are involved in prostitution. And the agency estimates that another one million children worldwide enter the sex trade every year.

The prostitution of children has plagued human society for centuries, but recent events have thrown the issue into a stark new focus. Chief among them: the grisly discovery in Belgium of the bodies of Melissa Russo and Julie Lejeune—eight-year-old victims of a suspected kidnapping and sex ring headed by child rapist Marc Dutroux. That case, which has shocked Belgium, was sure to fuel debate this week in Stockholm at an unprecedented international gathering of justice and child-welfare officials and activists aimed at fighting the growing problem of child prostitution. “People are beginning to realize that children’s issues are a policy priority,” says Canadian senator and child-welfare advocate Landon Pearson, one of about 20 Canadians attending the Aug. 27 to 31 World Congress Against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children. “The abuse of children has such terrible long-term impacts that it has to be addressed.”

In fact, governments in many of the worst areas for child prostitution have already begun to address the problem by cracking down on so-called sex tourists. Last March, a Thai court sentenced German citizen Bernd Karl-Heinz Nierenz, 36, to 43 years in jail for sexually abusing children. In the Philippines in May, Victor Keith Fitzgerald, a 66-year-old Australian businessman, was sentenced to 17 years in prison for buying sex from a 12-year-old girl. Canadians, too, have fallen prey to a governmental crackdown on child abuse. Last September, Philippine police arrested Canadian businessman Jean Guy Héroux for having sex with three girls—he is currently free on bail pending his trial. And in Sri Lanka, retired Canadian schoolteacher Benjamin Dennis received a one-year suspended sentence last year for sexually assaulting two boys, aged 12 and 14.

Much of the pressure to get tough on sex tourists has come from ECPAT—short for End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism—an organization formed in 1991 by child-welfare groups in the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Sri Lanka. With chapters around the world, ECPAT advocates enforcement of prostitution and child-abuse laws, and attempts to raise public awareness about the costs of child prostitution. As well, the organization has been instrumental in pushing for the passage of extraterritorial legislation against sex tourism. One such law—Bill C-27—is now before the Canadian Parliament, and if passed will make Canada the 12th country to criminalize child sexual abuses committed by citizens overseas.

But despite the work of agencies like ECPAT—the initiator of the Stockholm conference—child prostitution remains a complex problem that may well defy the power of lawmakers. One of the reasons is that, in many developing counties, it is intimately linked with poverty. Depressingly often, poor families will sell their own children—usually girls—into prostitution to make money, an act sometimes supported by culturally sanctioned sexism. And for many child prostitutes, the money makes it difficult to stop.

Yet if poverty explains the supply of prostitutes, it does little to explain the demand for them. According to ECPAT, most clients are local inhabitants. Among foreigners, outright pedophiles account for only a small percentage. Most sex tourists are simply men on vacation, freed from the social strictures of their home country. Many of them do not know—or don’t care—how old a prostitute is. And if anything, the AIDS pandemic has helped spur the growth of child prostitution. “These pedophiles and other sex tourists believe they won’t catch AIDS from very young children,” says Dolores Alforte, head of the Manila chapter of ECPAT. It is an erroneous belief, since child prostitutes, whose immune systems may not be fully developed and who are likely to sustain injury during sex, are more susceptible to infection than adults. Some Asian clients, meanwhile, prefer children because of a belief that sex with virgins promotes longevity.

Another problem: when one government cracks down on prostitution, sex tourists simply move to a different area. The industry, ECPAT officials say, is burgeoning in Africa and the former Soviet Bloc countries in Eastern Europe. Cambodia, Checking for underage too, is fast becoming a popular prostitutes in Brazil: destination for child sex. (The close link with poverty World Sex Guide, a handbook of international prostitution freely available on the World Wide Web, notes that in Phnom Penh, “a six-year-old is available for $3 US.”) A similar trend has occurred within the Philippines. Since Manila’s municipal government launched an anti-prostitution campaign four years ago, the sex industry has sprouted in other towns. Angeles City, the former site of a U.S. air base about a 90-minute drive north of Manila, is once again a thriving prostitution centre, where bars offer “cherry girls”—high-priced virgins with whom clients are banned from having intercourse. Another Angeles City bar caters to primarily Japanese clientele with a fetish for schoolgirls. It is called Classroom.

As the plague of child prostitution persists, it exacts a toll measured in lost innocence and wasted lives. Lita (not her real name) is one of the relatively lucky ones. After she ran away from home in the Manila suburb of Quezon City, Lita was 15 and alone on the streets when a man offered her a place to stay. “He seemed kind and concerned,” she recalls. “I had no other choice.” Slowly, however, the man initiated her into the sex trade, getting her work in strip clubs as a dancer and “entertainer.” This year, detectives hired by her mother found Lita and took her home. And today, she is attending high school, and seems a normal young woman of 17. But the scars are still there. When asked if she is still a virgin, Lita casts her eyes downward. She doesn’t say anything.