Several studies over many decades show that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) negatively affect the cognitive development of children, and their physical and mental health. Children suffer several threats to their well-being, from being victims of sexual and physical abuse to being isolated from their family environment. Children that are separated from their families become prone to being abused and trafficked.
Child trafficking is a widespread phenomenon. Children make up 27 percent of the 40 million victims of trafficking worldwide. Two out of every three identified child victims are girls. The 2020 Federal Human Trafficking Report states that the number of child victims of sex trafficking in the United States increased 55% compared to 2019.
Children who are trafficked are forced or persuaded under false pretenses to leave their homes. They are moved to an unknown location -frequently in other countries- to work as sex workers; work under abusive conditions; marry men who are much older and also may be abusive; or commit crimes. These children are also used as drug couriers or dealers, and frequently ‘paid’ in drugs, so that they become addicted and are further entrapped.
The reasons underlying trafficking include poverty; unemployment; low status of girls; lack of education (including sex education) of children and their parents; inadequate legislation; lack of or poor law enforcement; and the commercial sexual exploitation of children by the media, a phenomenon increasingly seen worldwide.
Children exploited for sex work are prone to sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS. In addition, girls can have multiple pregnancies and frequently they are forced to abort. Because of the conditions in which they are placed, children can become malnourished, and develop feelings of guilt, inadequacy and depression. They usually have no access to education and lack opportunities for social and emotional development.
In South Asia, traditional practices that perpetuate the low status of women and girls in society are at the core of the problem. More than 50,000 women and children from Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe are brought annually to the United States and forced into sex work or work as indentured servants. The US government has prosecuted cases involving hundreds of victims. In other countries which face this problem, the prosecution rate is low.
Child sex tourism
Child sex tourism is another form of trafficking. It is concentrated in Asia and Central and South America. According to UNICEF, 10,000 girls annually enter Thailand from neighboring countries and end up as sex workers. Thailand’s Health System Research Institute reports that child sex workers make up 40% of prostitutes in Thailand. Between 5,000 and 7,000 Nepali girls are transported across the border to India each year and end up as commercial sex workers in Mumbai, Bombay or New Delhi.
Although the greatest number of children forced to become sex workers is in Asia, children from Eastern European countries, such as Russia, Poland, Romania, Hungary and the Czech Republic, are increasingly vulnerable. Child sex work does not show signs of abating. In many cases, individual traffickers and organized groups kidnap children, take them across national borders and sell them for sex work, with border officials and police serving as accomplices.
There are special social and cultural reasons for children forced into entering the sex trade in different regions of the world. In many cases, children from industrialized countries enter the sex trade because they are fleeing abusive homes. In countries of Eastern and Southern Africa, children who became orphans as a result of AIDS frequently lack the protection of caregivers and become more vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation.
Impact of sexual exploitation of children
Besides the moral and ethical implications, the effect that sexual exploitation has on children’s health and future development demands urgent attention. Throughout the world, many individuals and non-governmental organizations are working intensely for the protection of children’s rights.
The work of international non-governmental organizations and UN agencies should be a complement to national governments’ actions to solve this problem. Those actions should include preventing sexual exploitation through social mobilization and awareness building, providing social services to exploited children and their families and creating the legal framework and providing resources for psycho-social counseling and for the appropriate prosecution of perpetrators. The elimination of the abuse and sexual exploitation of children around the world is a daunting task, but one that is achievable if effective programs are put in place.
Dr. César Chelala is an international medical consultant residing in New York and a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.