KHAM SUK is 13 years old. She is a small child, with a delicate face. When she giggles, she sounds like any little girl at play. But Kham Suk doesn't have much time for fun. Three months ago, her mother walked her across the border from Burma into Thailand and sold her to a brothel for $80. Kham Suk's family desperately needed the money. Kham Suk is still paying the price: $4 a customer.
Jafar Ibrahimi was only 10 years old when Iranian soldiers took him away from his village in northern Iran and put him on the front line of the Iran-Iraq war. He was sent into battle as a human minesweeper. ``In front of me, children were being killed,'' he remembers. ``I can't say how many, but too many.'' Miraculously, he survived two or three days in the mine fields before Iraqi soldiers captured him.
For more than five years, Jafar has been living in a prisoner-of-war camp in Iraq. He is prisoner No. 8085.
Sunil Dutt left his home in Pakistan when he was five years old. His stepmother was so cruel to him that he got on a bus one day and never went home. Today, the 12-year-old works as a waiter in New Delhi, in a grimy dhaba, a teahouse in an alley behind the Times of India building. Sunil sleeps in the street. He gets up every morning about 4 or 5 o'clock and works without a break until 9 p.m. Sunday is his day off. He earns about $11.72 a month.
When asked whether he misses his family, Sunil waits a long, long time before answering. ``When I think of my family,'' he finally says, ``I go crazy.''
These are children who live in darkness, the darkness of poverty, ignorance, greed - and indifference. There are tens of millions of children like them in the world today. They are the pawns, the possessions, and the products of an adult world that all too often exploits childhood for its own ends.
A few - a very few - of these children are being rescued from society's shadows by small grass-roots programs around the world. But the increased awareness of the needs and rights of children that was triggered in 1979 by the United Nations' International Year of the Child is being overwhelmed by sheer numbers.
Children under 15 years old represent as much as 40 percent of the total population in some developing countries. Their numbers are growing steadily, especially among the poor. And a constant flood of poor peasants into packed cities means that millions more children will be on the streets - living in conditions where the poor have a hard time getting clean water, let alone sending their children to school or breaking out of the relentless cycles of poverty that make children especially vulnerable to exploitation.
``These children are bearing the responsibility of adults,'' says Jennifer Schirmer, an anthropologist at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, who has worked with exploited children in Latin America. ``The kinds of burdens they bear are a type of daily violence - the daily, grinding violence of poverty. ... What we're creating is premature adults.''
EXPERTS say that children are at risk in virtually every country in the world (sexual abuse of children in Western families is one often-cited example). And they argue that children invariably wind up at the bottom of almost all national agendas for political and social action. Yet, within this sphere of universal indifference, the problem of exploitation is most pressing in the developing world.
Most, if not all, developing countries have laws on their books and lofty statements enshrined in their constitutions about the rights of children. But without a strong social consensus to enforce them, these legal documents are what one Guatemalan juvenile-court judge calls ``dead letters.''
Public will to enforce these laws is largely lacking because much of the developing world has not had the economic breathing room to enjoy the luxury of a debate on childhood - and from that debate, to develop and enforce a social consensus about the right of a child to a time of innocence and protection.
For millions of children squeezed between poverty and indifference, that absence of protection means being pushed to the very margins of society.
Adults are often the enemy in a world where survival is a daily battle. Adults like the taxi drivers in Guatemala City, who have been known to pour gasoline on the heads of sleeping street children and set them on fire. Adults like the middlemen who scour the impoverished countrysides of India and Thailand, offering needy parents $50 or $100 for their children - and who then sell the children at a substantial profit to a brothel or to a small factory, where boys and girls often work in conditions of virtual slavery.
Sometimes the enemy is even a greedy mother or father - as in the case of Marivic, a brown-haired, brown-eyed girl who wound up in Manila's red-light district when she was only 10 years old. Her mother was dead and her father was a drunkard, who forced her to beg - and eventually to prostitute herself - so that he would have money to buy liquor.
``He wanted me to steal, but I wouldn't do it,'' says Marivic, who learned she had venereal disease and - frightened that she might die - found her way more than a year ago to a small home for former child prostitutes in Manila. Marivic's father didn't want her to go to the home, but he died a few months ago in what was apparently a drug-related quarrel.
According to advocates of the fledgling children's-rights movement, the world risks a great deal with its present course of indifference and inaction. The costs, these activists say, are both personal and global - a price to be paid not only by the individual but by mankind as well.
``There's a wonderful human ingredient in these children that you can't find anywhere else,'' says Peter Ta,con, director of CHILDHOPE, a newly formed, Guatemala-based international organization aimed at helping street children. ``And that is the ingredient of prophecy, of hope.
``These children are in fact prophetic by their very existence - prophetic of what will happen to our race if we do nothing to work with them, prophetic of the depths of human despair and suffering that can result from selfishness and greed,'' he says.
``At the same time, they are prophetic of a very wonderful new world that can be had if we will lend a modicum of dignity and respect to their lives.''
What worries activists like Mr. Ta,con is the number of children who are growing up with a limited and hostile sense of the world. For many of them, the future is tightly hemmed in by horizons so narrow that moving out of poverty seems unthinkable.
FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD Mauro is a good example. He collects passenger fares on buses in Cuzco, Peru, earning about 75 cents a day. When he has children, he says, they will be like him - they'll have time for school, but they'll also have to work. Why? ``Because maybe there won't be enough money. ... If you're poor, then your kids have to work, of course.''
These children also represent what one Geneva-based expert on street children calls ``a time bomb in society.'' Governments that now place a low priority on children's needs in favor of addressing debt burdens and guerrilla war could well find those problems compounded in the years to come by street children who have become street adults. The result: an undereducated, underemployed population, straining social services and threatening social order.
``The main reason for protecting children is the continuance of community,'' says Judith Ennew, an associate lecturer at Cambridge University and a leading expert on street children. At its most extreme, she adds, ``a community which fails to look after its children ceases to exist.
``So at the most pessimistic level,'' she says, ``you're talking about the total crackup of society. Obviously, society's not totally cracking up, but maybe it's changing in ways that we don't want.''
There are no quick fixes for these children. In fact, because the problem is tied to economic growth and social awareness, the answers are likely to be evolutionary instead of revolutionary.
DESPITE the long-term nature of the problem, however, children's-rights activists do say that, since the International Year of the Child, they have witnessed an awakening in the world to the urgency of the problem. One of the main indications, they say, is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is still in its draft stages.
The document will be the most sweeping agreement ever on children's rights - drawing together many fragmented policies and statements that are now scattered throughout some 80 different documents.
The convention, which is expected to be ready for the UN to debate within the next few years, will be ``an absolutely vital instrument to have,'' says Nigel Cantwell, director of programs at Defense for Children International, a children's-rights organization.
``It's not that the convention itself will change anything,'' explains Mr. Cantwell, whose Geneva-based organization monitors abuses of children's rights in much the same way that the London-based Amnesty International tracks human rights violations.
``But it will give us greater force, greater strength in our action, greater moral support,'' he says. ``We can then say, `This is what the international community has laid down, and we're here to see how you guys are implementing it.'''
As important as such international documents are in upholding standards - and as imperative as national policies and laws are in carrying them out, legal paths alone. are not the way out of darkness. As Ms. Ennew of Cambridge University puts it, ``You can't legislate for love.''
Advocates for children's rights say that the cornerstone of change must be laid in the hearts and minds of individuals. Until a community provides the caring, and the will to rescue children from the darkness of indifference, they say, lasting change will never come.
``People may say, `Well, this isn't my child. I didn't bring him forth, so what responsibility do I have for him?''' says Neera Kapur, a trustee of a Bombay organization called Child Relief and You (CRY).
``But I think the time has come. ... There's a demand being made not just on the society, but on the world. There's a demand being made that selfishness has to slowly wear off.
``Every individual needs to make his contribution, not just a monetary one, but as one human being to another, to see the needs of another individual, to recognize them,'' Ms. Kapur says. ``It's a change in mental attitude that can go a long way.''
Children's-rights activists say that the indifference they are battling is rooted in consumerism, materialism - and fatalism, the feeling that the problem is just too big to be tackled, so why try? Advocates concede the numbers seem overwhelming. But over and over, they respond to skeptics with a modest yet urgent plea: One child at a time. If there is hope - a way out - for one child, they say, there must be hope for another. And another.
Reducing the problem to a one-to-one relationship is also one way of bringing individuals to what many experts in the field see as a profound turning point in world history - the wider recognition of a child as a human being with inalienable rights.
The time has come, children's-rights advocates say, to stop viewing children as personal possessions; to stop abusing their dependence on adults; to stop taking advantage of the fact that they have no political or social power, that they have no means of their own to stand up to adults who exploit their innocence.
The time has come, they say, to treat a child as an individual who has rights that must be respected by all mankind. It is a demand that cuts through cultural barriers and straight across the gap between developed and developing countries.
``There is a lack of consciousness of the rights of a child as an individual, as a person,'' says Michel Bonnet, an activist for children's rights and an expert on child labor. ``That problem is exactly the same in the third world and in the first world.
``It's a problem of rights.''