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November 2004
The Theft of a Child
By Kymberlie Adams Matthews


Photo courtesy of

Child prostitution is a growing problem worldwide. In Asia alone, according to experts on the subject, more than one million young boys and girls are engaged in commercial sexual activity. In every part of the world the number of children being used in this way is growing. Child prostitutes are found in virtually every country, including the U.S. and the U.K., France, Germany and Japan. The numbers are astounding. Every year, children as young as seven are trafficked against their will, and sold into prostitution. Quite honestly, no one knows the number of victims of commercial sexual exploitation in the world today. There is simply no reliable means of determining. But you can be sure that whatever the number is, it will have risen by the time you finish reading this article.

The reasons for this lack of evidence vary. In some regions, such as Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, evidence is primarily anecdotal. Until very recently, there has been no serious attempt to address the issues and very little research has been conducted in these areas. In the regions where research has been conducted, data is not collected adequately enough to present a true picture. Research on child prostitution tends to focus on its most visible forms, and where information is easily accessible. Such prostitution takes place in the lower class brothels or the streets and other public areas, such as around bus stations or in parks. This does not present a true picture of the nature nor the extent of child prostitution. A great deal of the exploitation is clandestine. It occurs through contacts in nightclubs or bars, or through high-end escort services where the abuse takes place in privately rented apartments or hotels.

Government sources may underestimate numbers or completely deny the problem exists in order to protect their international reputation. Some journalistic reports may tend to sensationalize numbers. Furthermore, since the commercial sexual exploitation of children is illegal, researchers attempting to collect data have been harassed, intimidated, or threatened verbally or physically.

The Money Market
The abominable fact is, child trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry and the traffickers—whether syndicated “professionals,” selfish relatives, or so-called “friends”—are the largest profiteers from the practice. Many child sex workers interviewed by the Institute for the Protection of Children said relatives introduced them to prostitution, while others said friends recruited them. Poverty is the most important factor contributing to the growth of child prostitution. Children offer themselves or, in most cases, are sold for sex in return for money. In developing countries particularly, the lack of viable economic opportunities, especially in rural areas, combined with rising expectations and the appeal of acquiring modern goods, exaggerates the desire to profit even by exploitation.

According to the organization ECPAT, highly profitable sex tours catering to Japanese, European and other Caucasian tourists, allows the child sex trade to flourish. High-spending sex tourists are the targeted clients because of the instant money and brisk business they bring in. Child sex “customers” come from all walks of life: they may be married or single, male or female, wealthy tourists or budget travelers. They may be pedophiles travelling specifically to exploit children or travelers who do not plan their trip with the intention of abusing a child.

Many social workers point to the fear of AIDS as one of the main reasons for the thriving trade in under aged sex partners, as customers believe them to be “safe.’’ Cultural myths also play a role—some Asians seek out young partners for their apparent rejuvenating or reinvigorating capabilities.

Anonymity, availability of children, and being away from the moral and social constraints that normally govern one’s behavior can also lead to abusive conduct in another country. Tourists often justify their behavior by claiming that it is culturally acceptable in that country or that they are helping the child by providing them with money.

But it is not just a fraternity for foreigners. According to a study by the Women’s Education, Development, Productivity and Research Organization, while there is a “substantial proportion’’ of foreign customers, in the Philippines for example, “Filipinos are the main users of Filipinos forced into prostitution.’’

The Children
Sex rings involve power structures which actively recruit vulnerable children and youth. These children experience all the forms of cruelty that a modern-day society can possibly offer: violence, intimidation, sexual assault, and torture at the hands of brothel owners, clients, and even police. Victims typically report being slapped, kicked, beaten unconscious, burned with cigarettes, and raped for refusing to work.

Children are even extremely vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV infection and AIDS. As many as 70 percent of the children in brothels are HIV-positive. Pills and condoms are virtually unknown or oftentimes neglected among children, and with the notion that it prevents or cures gonorrhea (the most common STD), children regularly drink a concoction of water with a bit of Tide (detergent).

Psychological impacts of sexual exploitation are harder to measure, but no less damaging. Many victims report feelings of shame, guilt and low self-esteem. Some children do not believe they are worthy of rescue. Others create a different reality and say that prostitution was their choice—that they want to help support their family or that their pimp is really their boyfriend who loves them.

Some suffer from stigmatization or the knowledge that they were betrayed by someone that they trusted. Others suffer from nightmares, sleeplessness, hopelessness and depression—akin to the feelings exhibited in victims of torture. To cope, some children attempt suicide or turn to substance abuse.

Confronting the Trade
ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes) is a network of organizations working to eliminate the commercial sexual exploitation of children. It has expanded from four groups (all in Asia) prior to the World Congress in 1996 to 71 groups in 64 countries by 2004, all of which are independently working against commercial sexual exploitation of children.

Since the early 1990s, ECPAT International has worked with the tourism and travel industry to raise awareness and take actions against the sexual abuse of children. The industry has responded with enthusiasm, and to raise awareness, special luggage tags, ticket pouches, education manuals and programs in tourism training schools, in-flight videos, advertisements against child sex tourism, and codes of conduct for tour operators have been adopted and promoted.

The Laws
Authorities face obstacles when conducting investigations and prosecuting offences committed abroad. Collection of reliable evidence and testimonies depend on cooperation with the local police. Differences in language, culture and attitude may complicate matters further.

Government representatives from 159 countries, together with nongovernmental organizations, Unicef and other UN agencies, have committed themselves to a global partnership against the commercial sexual exploitation of children. The Agenda for Action calls for improved coordination and cooperation, prevention measures, increased protection, rehabilitation efforts and youth participation.

And while the Agenda for Action is not legally binding, there are several international conventions that contain articles offering protection to children from commercial sexual exploitation. States which ratify these conventions are legally bound to comply with their provisions. The most widely ratified convention, and perhaps the best known, is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which calls for, among other things, appropriate measures to prevent the inducement or coercion of a child to engage in unlawful sexual activity, the exploitative use of children in prostitution, pornography or other unlawful sexual activities; and the abduction, sale of or traffic in children for any purpose.

Another strategy is to re-conceptualize child sexual exploitation as ‘degrading treatment’ and therefore a violation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

A Safe House
With the prospect of street justice, Dominique Lemay, a French social worker, set up the Virlanie Foundation, in 1988 to work with street children and young prostitutes in Manila. Aside from food, education and love, the Virlanie Foundation offers these children a place to live other than the streets.

A nonprofit, child-caring institution duly licensed by the Philippines’ Department of Social Welfare and Development, the Virlanie Foundation operates 12 homes, currently caring for 270 children. It employs 75 Filipino social workers, street educators, house parents and others. They offer several programs including the Drop-in Center, which serves as a halfway house for street children who do not adjust to the idea of home life right away. In this center, the children can go in and out as they please, but they get the chance to have good food three times a day, clean clothes and a clean bed.

Another priority is the Jade Program, set up after it was noticed that the number of mentally handicapped children in the various homes of the Virlanie Foundation was increasing. It is run by a group of professionals who care for children living in a home created especially for them.

The Family Program is the preventative aspect of the Virlanie Foundation’s work; community organizing, youth training, and livelihood projects are done among urban poor families in chosen communities. It is hoped that improving the standards of living will cause a decline in the incidence of street children. They also operate L’Epi d’Or de Virlanie, a bakery providing training to children in the basics of producing bread, pastries and other delicacies. This is also a business program designed to generate funds that help support the other programs of Virlanie Foundation, which will benefit the children and families already in its care.

Finally, the Children’s Legal Rights Program provides legal services for all children whose rights are violated (litigation, free legal counseling) and promotes the protection of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This program also works for the immediate resolution of cases of children in conflict with the law.

Child prostitution is an immense and devastating problem that nobody wants to recognize or talk about and everyone wants to cover up. Child prostitutes are not only abandoned by their parents, but by the social system as well. They are often subjected to terribly cruel and sadistic physical abuse in addition to sexual abuse. There is profound trauma associated with being used in child prostitution and sex rings and the impact of the abuse can be life-long. Survivors often lose a sense of personal power and have difficulty making good choices as adults. For the survivor who was abused as a child by a group of adults there is no safe place.

By getting a taste of what normal life is like, children can learn to do things for themselves. By offering children appropriate adult role models who won’t let them down and help them set and achieve goals, the Virlanie Foundation provides the tools that prepare youngsters to function in mainstream jobs and live normal lives.

Indifference and ignorance, the perpetuation of attitudes and values in a society that view children as economic commodities, the absence of and/or inadequate legislation, corruption, and limited sensitization of law enforcement personnel are all factors which lead, directly or indirectly, to the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Despite many efforts by dedicated groups and individuals to the contrary, the commercial sexual exploitation of children is a sad situation that seems to be increasing in both scale and scope.

For information on the Virlanie Foundation, visit For more on ECPAT see



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