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Poor children targets of sex exploitation

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Rosario Baluyot was born in Manila, the Philippines, the youngest of eight children. She died at age 12, the victim of a European sex exploiter. Like other children without families, she became a street child when she was 8 years old, gravitating to the U.S. Naval base at Subic Bay, where there were about 1.2 million children under age 16 trying to scrape by.

She was picked up one night by Heinrich Stefan Ritter, an Austrian physician. Sex with minors is illegal in his country, so he traveled to the Philippines to find what he wanted. He invited her to his hotel room, promising her money and food. There he had sex with her and then forcibly inserted a vibrator into her vagina. The object broke, fragmented and lodged inside Rosario's cervix. She had seven months of agonizing pain and infection before she died.

Ritter was tried in court and sentenced to life imprisonment by a Philippine court for the rape and death of a child, but the charges were reversed on a technicality. He returned to Austria where he is still free today.

Rosario's story has become a symbol for a growing international movement to stop child sexual exploitation. She is only one of hundreds of thousands of children used in child prostitution and child pornography in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, South America, Mexico, Eastern Europe and several other regions. And Ritter is but one of thousands of men from the United States, Canada, Japan, France, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and many other developed nations who travel from their home countries, where sex with young girls and boys is prohibited, to countries that have no laws or laws that are rarely enforced against child sexual abuse.

$5 billion industry

According to a recent study by the International Commission of Jurists, the sex market for minors under 16 is a $5 billion industry including agents, madams, pimps and criminal organizations. It is an industry driven by poverty, greed and a callous demand for sex.

In a call to action, UNICEF and the government of Sweden hosted the first World Congress to End Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Stockholm, Sweden, in August. The aim was to bring government officials, law enforcement agencies, nongovernmental organizations and interested individuals together to address the problem.

The congress focused on Article 34 in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This article addresses the problem of child sexual exploitation and urges all nations to take steps to prohibit child prostitution and child pornography.

The congress met for five days during which over 100 governments, intergovernmental agencies and national and international nongovernmental organizations presented information on the situation in various regions of the world, the action governments are taking to prevent or reduce child sexual exploitation, and the advocacy work of the many nongovernmental organizations around the world. The congress may not have solved the problem but it brought to light the urgency of the issue. Several important themes emerged.

Media reports would have us believe that commercial sexual exploitation is confined to a few poor regions of the world. But new evidence demonstrates that every country, rich or poor, North or South, produces its own child sexual abusers. In addition, citizens of affluent, developed nations are traveling to poorer countries to exploit children. The focus of this "sender-receiver" trafficking has been mainly on Japanese sex tourists, but organizations like ECPAT -- End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism -- report that just as many tourists come from the United States, Canada, Australia and over a half-dozen Western European countries as from Japan. The United States -- which has treated the problem as if it were happening to some poor people "over there" -- was named by ECPAT as one of the nations with the largest number of sex tourists traveling abroad.

Laws are inadequate

Laws and law enforcement to prevent child sexual exploitation are hopelessly inadequate.

One example is child pornography, a form of child sexual exploitation. Laws prohibiting the production, distribution and possession of child pornography are important in order to address both the supply and demand side of the child pornography industry. A recent survey by the Center on Speech, Equality and Harm at the University of Minnesota Law School found that of 165 countries surveyed, only 31 had laws prohibiting the production, distribution and possession of child pornography.

This lack of protection and lack of coordination among nations has been exploited by traffickers, who identify places that have no such laws or have laws that are rarely enforced (for example, most countries in Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and the Caribbean). They produce child pornography in these countries and ship it to countries where it is illegal to produce it but legal to possess it, for example Sweden, Finland, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy.

These countries then become the stopping off points for further distribution, using Internet and other advanced telecommunications technologies in Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries.

Clearly, Internet and the World Wide Web are wonderful new resources for international communication. But there is a dark underbelly. These new technologies are being used to traffic women and children for mail order brides, prostitution and slave labor. As experts testified at the World Congress, it is now possible for a child pornographer to transmit a single child pornography image to thousands of sites instantaneously and simultaneously. Encryptation allows a new level of private and secret trade in child pornography.

In addition, computer morphing allows pornographers to create child pornography by altering images -- using one child's head and another's body.

It has become increasingly clear that, as in drug trafficking and gunrunning, child traffickers are organized. Reports from human rights groups say international motorcycle gangs are trafficking in Filipino women in Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland and other Scandinavian countries.

From UNICEF and UNESCO come reports of internationally organized criminals in Eastern Europe and Russia moving into, among other things, child prostitution and child pornography. Women's organizations report Italian mafia trafficking in Albanian and other Eastern European women.

Definitions vary

Around the world, the definition of a child varies so widely as to make it impossible to have a cooperative effort protecting children from sexual exploitation. In Tanzania and the Philippines, the age of majority is 12; in a dozen other countries, it is 14: over 100 countries set the age of majority at 18. But these same countries have variations on age of consent to sexual relations.

Thus, what may be illegal sexual relations or statutory rape in England may be legal in a Southeast Asian country. A country that prohibits child prostitution but makes the age of majority 12 has no protection for a teenage child targeted by an adult exploiter.

While most countries are addressing the problem, renewed effort is needed. Countries must examine their definitions of child and the age of consent for sexual relations. As much as possible, nations should regularize these definitions, taking into account what we already know about the universal physical, psychological and emotional development of a human being. Only an international campaign can make cooperation among law enforcement agencies feasible.

Laura J. Lederer is director of the Center on Speech, Equality and Harm at the University of Minnesota Law School. Her research was presented at the Stockholm congress.

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 1996