Worldwide Disgrace: Exploiting the Child

JONATHAN POWER

April 09, 1993|By JONATHAN POWER

Copenhagen. -- Fourteen years ago the Polish government proposed that the international community write a Convention on the Rights of the Child. It was to be the world's first universal and binding policy statement on children's rights.

The convention was unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on November 20, 1989. Article 32 outlaws child labor. Article 30 outlaws trafficking in children. Article 34 outlaws sexual exploitation. At the end of 1990, at the World's Children Summit in New York, 71 heads of state signed the Convention.

Despite all the words written, promises made and convention signed, too little has changed. The crises of the child laborer, the bonded child, the persecuted child and the sexually misused child remain.

Of all the crimes of exploitation of the child, nothing is more sensitive and difficult to prove than the child-sex industry. Child prostitution exists in many countries, but none has attracted more attention than Thailand, even though, proportionately, India and the Philippines have industries as large. In Bangkok, according to a path-breaking report by Redd Barna, the Norwegian child-aid agency, there are 20,000 girl prostitutes between the ages of 12 and 15.

Child prostitution was relatively unknown in Thailand before the country became a ''rest place'' for American soldiers fighting in Vietnam. Similarly, in the Philippines its development into a phenomenon of major proportions is linked closely with the large American bases of Clark and Subic Bay, which were developed during World War II and only closed last year.

Over the last 20 years both countries have invested heavily in mass tourism which has plugged right into this world of prostitution, enlarging it, commercializing it and making it a significant part of the economy. Child prostitution has grown at least as fast as the tourist industry as a whole.

Nevertheless, American soldiers and spoiled tourists are not exclusively to blame. India has between 300,000 and 400,000 child prostitutes, yet there have never been any American soldiers, and tourism, while growing, has never been oriented to the kind of tourists who travel for sex. In the Philippines, even in the red-light neighborhoods near the American bases, half the customers were local people.

In Latin America, child prostitution has long existed, unprovoked by a large foreign military presence or, until quite recently, mass tourism.

In Africa, child prostitution is still in its infancy, confined to countries like Kenya, where there has been fairly rapid but uneven economic growth. It is unclear whether it was tourism or the long-standing British and American military staging posts that were the initiating influences.

If we cannot always be certain about the ''pull,'' neither is it always clear what is behind the ''push.''

Poverty is obviously a major cause. Families living in bad housing, with little money and large numbers of children, are usually those most susceptible to allowing or encouraging their children to enter the trade. Most child prostitutes either have mothers who are already prostitutes or they are already making a living as street children and find, after a while, that prostitution offers the best rewards.

Two things have to be said. The overwhelming majority of the very poor in Asia, Africa or Latin America would never countenance their daughters -- or sons -- becoming prostitutes. And other influences besides poverty are at work.

In Thailand it is not the poorest regions that provide the majority of child prostitutes; it is villages that have tasted the consumer society and wish to enjoy more of its fruits. Moreover, there is evidence, particularly in the north of the country where drug addiction is a serious problem, that heroin-injecting fathers encourage their young daughters to seek work in the cities as ''waitresses'' to pay for their habit.

There is relatively little counterpressure to halt this human degradation. Governments like Thailand's pass laws but cannot or do not enforce them. Voluntary agencies do sterling work, but always on too small a scale. The rush to modern, urban, industrial life has been too fast and too violent. The broken families and overwhelmed families number in the hundreds of millions. Child prostitution is but the most visible and awful manifestation of the chaos beneath.

B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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