By Laurence Gray
Children gather in Rio de Janerio, Brazil, to voice their concerns
Photo by: TRACEY SHELTON
A sex worker looks out to the street by Wat Phnom. Youngsters gathered in Brazil this week to talk about child exploitation.
It is to the world's shame that hundreds of youngsters - including many from the Asia-Pacific region - are meeting in Brazil this week [November 25-28] to talk to governments and activists about the global sexual exploitation of boys and girls for profit.
While it is a very good thing that children have been invited to the third World Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children and Adolescents, it is also a reflection of the failure of countries worldwide to do more to protect
children from the worst forms of abuse.
According to Unicef, around two million children every year are now being exploited through prostitution or pornography. The sad truth is that the problem cannot be solved unless children are invited to be part of the solution.
Improvements in awareness
In the years since the first congress was held in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1996, things have moved on. The sexual abuse of children at the hands of tourists, brothel owners and traffickers was a major talking point back in 1996. Much has been done since then to raise awareness, engage hotels and tourism authorities, and introduce laws to protect children. Child victims are now more likely to be recognised as survivors rather than criminals.
In some areas, progress in protecting children has been made. In Cambodia, the government has clamped down, closing down a notorious brothel village near Phnom Penh where underage sex was sold. Police have been trained to spot child abuse and poster campaigns engage the public in fighting it.
Southeast Asian governments are also working together now to return and rehabilitate child victims of sex trafficking, introducing tougher laws and holding one another to account.
However, enforcement remains patchy. It is not difficult to find children being sold for sex in parts of Asia - or indeed in countries in Europe, the Americas and Africa. In Asia, there is still the false premise that child sex abusers are white male tourists, overlooking the fact that many youngsters are abused by Asians. Asian governments also lag behind in terms of implementing extradition laws that bring child abusers home for trial.
Technology offers more dangers
The internet and the proliferation of mobile phones with video- and photo-sharing capabilities are potentially exposing children to online predators and pornographers. The role that teachers, family and friends traditionally play in protecting children from abusers is failing because children spend more time online, where they are exposed to the moral lows of the internet and where abusers can make direct contact anonymously.
Much more needs to be done in policing the internet to prevent hard-core images of children being shared, to combat abusers who now transmit encrypted images to buyers or who groom children online in an attempt to meet them or persuade them to "perform" via webcams.
Until recently it was chiefly poor children who were at greatest risk from commercial sexual exploitation due to their poverty and vulnerability. Now any child with a computer and internet connection is also in danger.
The growth of the internet, especially in Asia, where only 15 percent of the population - some 600 million people - are users, highlights the huge potential for further exploitation in this area. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, child pornography is already a multibillion-dollar industry.
Organisations demonstrate efforts
Leading child rights organisations like World Vision have brought 300 children, some the survivors of sexual exploitation, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The organisations will be showing how they have been at the forefront of efforts to warn youngsters about the dangers of trafficking and the internet, and persuading governments to do much more to protect them.
Children are telling us they want adults to do more. They want their families to make better money so they are not handed over to brokers whose promise of a good job only leads to work in brothels; they want their friends educated about online risks and the internet censored; they want their families to love and protect them, not sell them; they want border police to be non-corruptible rather than accepting bribes from traffickers; they want their governments to listen to and stand up for them.
Laurence Gray is World Vision's
advocacy director for the Asia-Pacific region.