Confronting Child Sex Tourism

7/7/2010 – Child sex tourism is an urgent child rights issue throughout the world, but especially in Southeast Asia, as recent arrests in Thailand have demonstrated.

Despite the efforts of many governments to enact legislation that prohibits their citizens from engaging in child prostitution abroad, many children continue to suffer sexual abuse by locals, visitors and ex-pats.

For instance, the US created the Protect Act in 2003, which doles out a possible 30-year prison stay to an US citizen engaging in sexual acts with anyone under 18 years old abroad. In Canada too, engaging in any sexual act concerning children is illegal. However, a high-profile Russian pianist was apprehended and charged with raping a 14-year old boy in Thailand today. Mikhail Pletnev could face up to 20 years in prison and 40,000 baht in fines. And less than two weeks ago, a 90-year old Australian man, Karl Kraus, was apprehended by police for the sexual abuse—including child pornography—of four Thai girls (aged 5 to 12).

Thailand is a source, transit and destination country according to the US Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report. Thai girls may be trafficked to other Southeast Asia countries, South Africa, Europe, North America and Australia.  Those coming into Thailand may originate from East Asia, Russia and Eurasian countries. Not all, but many, girls are trafficked by international networks of organized crime. Thailand’s 1997 Prevention and Suppression of Trafficking in Women and Children Act makes the sexual exploitation of children a crime punishable by 5-20 years imprisonment  for exploiting children under 15 years old in addition to financial penalties.

In nearby Cambodia, 30, 000 children suffer from commercial sexual exploitation. Children as young as 5 years old are used as sex slaves. As in Thailand, they are magnets for child sex tourism, which is illegal in the country. In 2004, it was estimated that roughly a third of all prostitutes in Cambodia were children.

In the entire Mekong region of Southeast Asia, roughly 35% of all sex workers are between 12 and 17 years old.

Worldwide, more than 2 million children are victimized by the commercial sex industry. They have been sold by family members to pay debts or earn some extra cash, kidnapped, or otherwise coerced into the sex trade. These children are a high-risk group for sexually-transmitted diseases. More often than not, they face destitution in addition to prostitution, rejected by or estranged from their families and communities.

Child prostitution is only one aspect of the global child rights challenge of child trafficking. Girls may also be trafficked for mail-order-brides and domestic help. Both girls and boys may be trafficked for labour, sexual exploitation and work in the drug industry. Those interested in child protection might consult the 2009 “Training Manual to Fight Trafficking in Children” produced by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNICEF.