A world where survival is a daily battle
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.