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East Asia & Pacific: Curbing demand for child sex

Publish Date: 10 Nov 2004

Source: IPS
By Marwaan Macan-Markar

Fight Child Prostitution By Curbing Demand - Groups

BANGKOK, Nov 10 (IPS) - Child rights experts are urging governments and societies across East Asia and the Pacific to shed their long-held cultural practices and throw their weight behind children in order to save them from being exploited as prostitutes.

Such a call stemmed from a growing campaign by activists aimed at pressuring countries to go after the men who demand child prostitutes, if such rampant abuse of the region's youngest citizens is to stop.

''In the Asia-Pacific region, there are a number of cultural practices that make it difficult to combat demand,'' Denise Ritchie, who heads a New Zealand child rights group, Stop Demand Foundation, said at a press conference Wednesday.

Part of that has been fed by the belief pervasive among men in parts of Asia and the Pacific that sex with a virgin or child ensures safety against contracting the killer disease AIDS. ''In Papua New Guinea, men believe that if they have sex with a virgin they won't get AIDS,'' said Alastair Wilkinson of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), a regional U.N. agency.

Cracking down on local predators are just as significant as attempts to go after foreign pedophiles, Vitit Muntarbhorn, professor of law at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, added. ''The local clientele is much more higher than foreign clients.''

That has been brought out by studies on the sex industry, which reveal that in South- east Asian countries like Thailand and Cambodia visits made by local male clients to brothels and massage parlours outnumber foreigners. Some estimate than in Cambodia, for instance, the majority of men who frequent brothels are locals - while foreigners constitute just over 10 percent of the clientele.

Figures posted on the website of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) reflect the scale of abuse in Asia. ''Estimates of the number of children engaged in prostitution vary from 60,000 to 200,000,'' reveals the U.N. child rights agency about the reality in Thailand.

In neighbouring Laos, a government report released in October notes that child trafficking for prostitution was rampant in all 17 provinces, according to a media release of UNICEF and End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT), an international child rights lobby.

''Interviews with 253 victims (of whom 60 percent were girls between the ages 12 and 18), their families and other key informants found that regional economic disparities, a lack of opportunity at home and the negative influence of the media all contribute to vulnerability,'' it added.

The push to tackle demand as a pressing need was one of the issues addressed by representatives from more than 20 East Asia and Pacific countries during a three-day regional meeting on commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) that ended here on Wednesday.

The Asia-Pacific region is doing little to stem this demand-centered drive, Ritchie admitted. ''There is not a lot that has been done in the region to stop demand.''

And that governments are doing harm to their children by not rallying behind the call to crackdown on demand was driven home by a Thai child at the press conference. ''The exploiters are not strangers but members of our families or someone we respect and trust,'' she said.

However the participants, who included government officials, child rights groups and youth delegates, backed the call for more community-based projects -- such as those underway in the Philippines and Thailand -- as a necessary first step.

''Local monitoring systems mean that members of the community can report abuse, while local officials have been trained to respond with greater sensitivity and effectiveness,'' stated the media release in reference to the Thai and Filipino efforts.

At the same time, there was consensus that the spread of child pornography through the Internet had added a new burden since the first World Congress Against CSEC, held in Stockholm in 1996. At that gathering, governments from 122 countries signed a declaration to implement a host of measures to save children from prostitution.

The advances in technology, such as digital cameras, had contributed to the phenomenon of Internet pornography, since it was now far easier to access it than the conditions that prevailed in the pre-Internet world, where one had to have contacts with people peddling pornography.

A senior UNICEF official said that the rapid spread of child pornography on the Internet had seen a dramatic rise in children being trapped into the sex industry. ''The problem is growing in several parts of the world such as Asia where the number of people using the Internet is rapidly increasing,'' UNICEF's Gopalan Balagopal said.

Yet at the same time, the experts conceded that some headway has been made over the past eight years. They pointed out that the silence on commercial sexual exploitation of children has been broken and stronger laws are in place to go after abusers.

''There is now greater awareness than before,'' said a participant.


Copyright © 2004 IPS-Inter Press Service