When all you have to sell is your body
RAY is pretty savvy for a nine-year-old. He's taught himself a little French, he's managed to save a little money, and he knows his way around town - especially around the bars and back streets of Manila's red-light district. Ray uses words like ``pedophile'' when he talks about his life. It's not just a big word he picked up on the street. He knows exactly what he's saying, because for two years now, Ray has been selling himself to white, middle-aged men who come to Manila to buy boys for an hour or evening of sex.
``It's a dirty job,'' says Ray, who uses the money to buy clothes and pay for books and uniforms for public school. Referring to his child-prostitute friends, he adds, ``We only need money. That's why we go with the foreigners. All the people here don't like this job, but they need money.
``This job is not easy to do, you know,'' says Ray, who makes about $10 for a full evening of work. He speaks in a flat, matter-of-fact tone. ``You must do some services to foreigners, and sometime you will have a customer who has some sickness - AIDS, like that.
``And when it's transferred to you,'' he continues, ``what will you do? You cannot live anymore.''
The sexual exploitation of children by adults is ugly and vicious. It is also a fact of life for tens of thousands of third-world children like Ray, struggling to survive the brutal realities of poverty - and the greed of adults who take advantage of a child's desperation.
Unlike many of the teen-age prostitutes in Times Square or on Hollywood Boulevard, child prostitutes in developing countries generally are not runaways; they are fighters. For many of them, the way to survive - or at least to get a meal to last them until tomorrow - is to sell the only thing they have: their bodies. And they quickly learn that what they have is marketable. There are plenty of adults - male, female, Western, and non-Western - who are only too willing to buy.
The Philippine government estimates that of Manila's 15,000 street children, 30 percent are involved in prostitution. In Thailand, officials of children's-rights groups say, the figure is even higher - as many as 40,000 prostitutes under the age of 14. Although the problem is generally considered to be most severe in Asia, child prostitutes can be found walking the streets - or sometimes locked up in brothels - from Bombay and Taipei to Nairobi and Santiago.
In fact, although exact numbers do not exist, children's-rights advocates say that wherever there is poverty - and wherever children are living or spending most of their time on the streets - it is almost inevitable that they will fall prey to the sexual appetites of adults.
``For most of these kids, it's not a question of right or wrong,'' says Enrico Enriquez, who helps run a small home called New Beginnings for ex-child prostitutes in Manila. ``If they do what the pedophile asks them to do, they'll be given money.... It's a means of making money for them and their families.''
Fourteen-year-old Mehgie supports her younger brother and bedridden mother. She tried to get a job in a grocery store, but she was too young. So, on Feb. 28, 1987, she sold her virginity in the back room of a Manila bar for $125.
Since February, Mehgie has worked - from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. - at a disco in Manila's bawdy Ermita district. She makes roughly $3 a night for dancing, $20 an hour for sex - money that she uses to help her family and to pay for private school. Good grades are important to Mehgie. She wants to go to college and learn to be a computer engineer.
``[If] we have no dance, we have no money,'' she says in broken English. ``But I don't like. When I finish my study, I'm not dancer.''
MEHGIE goes to church every Sunday. She prays that she will finish school, and that the men that she is with don't have diseases. She talks to the priest about her problem. He tells her to pray to the Lord.
In some ways, children like Mehgie and Ray are better off than other children are - circumstances may have forced them into prostitution, but adults have not. For many others, however, prostitution has a nastier dimension: Adults make them do it.
Sometimes it is a parent who prostitutes his or her own child; grass-roots workers, like Mr. Enriquez, say that parents have shown up at New Beginnings to demand their daughters back because a customer has been lined up for them. Other times, a parent may sell a child to another adult - the case for many Burmese girls working in brothels on the border between Thailand and Burma. The price a brothel owner will pay for a young girl is almost equal to a year's earnings for a poor Burmese farmer.
There are also cases of adults who trick children into prostitution - or even kidnap them. For Ar Soh, a soft-spoken Thai teen-ager, a two-year nightmare of forced prostitution began when a man she knew came to her village and offered her a job in a nearby town. Ar Soh was 13. She trusted, and followed, him.
The man took Ar Soh from her village in the north to a town near Bangkok. There he sold her to a brothel. For two years, Ar Soh was kept in virtual slavery - and forced to have sex with as many as five men a day. Finally, one customer tried to help her escape by digging a hole with a spoon in the dirt floor under her bed. When the owner discovered it, he beat Ar Soh with a steel rod, locked her in a closet for three days, and moved her to another house, where she was locked in a room two floors up.
Ar Soh was desperate to escape - and she did. She squeezed through a window and jumped to the pavement below, breaking her back. With help, she made it to the police and a hospital. Today, at 18, Ar Soh makes artificial flowers. The man who enslaved her is in jail.
``These girls are treated as sex objects, they are seen as flesh trade,'' says Khunying Kanitha Wiechiencharoen, a lawyer and activist who helped Ar Soh recover through an organization she started for distressed women and children. ``It's really difficult to get those children out of all those greedy hands.''
Children's-rights advocates like Mrs. Wiechiencharoen worry about the toll that prostitution takes on a child - about the physical damage inflicted on young bodies through adult sex and sadism; about the emotional confusion suffered by a child plunged into sexuality while still discovering his or her own identity; and about the distortion of values imposed on a child who learns early in life that sex can be sold for survival.
``That particular part of a person's life, between the ages of 1 and 12, is his most vulnerable,'' says Jennifer Schirmer, an anthropologist at Wellesley College in Massachussetts and a childrens'-rights advocate. ``That period of time creates who you are for the rest of your life. It's the most vulnerable part of your life because you are at the mercy of adults. ``You need protection by adults from adults.''
Child prostitution is illegal in virtually every country in the world. But children's-rights experts say that generally the penalties are not severe enough to be effective. Some fines that have been imposed on brothel owners for using children are as low as $20 or $30.
Laws that are not backed by the will of a government are equally futile, experts say. In the Philippines, for example, local activists say their work was made especially difficult because child prostitution was at least tacitly supported by former President Ferdinand Marcos. His regime, they say, was eager for revenues brought in by ``sex tourists'' - foreigners who get their tips on where to find child prostitutes through gay sex guides like Spartacus, or through travel agencies that tailor trips to the sexual interests of both heterosexual and homosexual clients.
TURNING the tide against child prostitution is not an easy task. Some people view the answer in simple - if challenging - economic terms: end poverty, end prostitution. That's the way Norma sees it. She is a young Chilean mother and former prostitute, who lives in one of Santiago's poblaciones, or poor neighborhoods.
In recent years, as Chile's economy nose-dived under the military rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, thousands of girls started streaming out of the poblaciones every evening, heading for the traffic circles and downtown strips where they knew that for 15 minutes of sex in a car they could make $3 or $4 - enough to buy a meal. Even though Chile's economy has begun to improve in the past year, thousands of girls still work the streets.
`OF course I worry about my daughter,'' says Norma, who has two sons and a seven-year-old daughter. ``I hope she turns out well, but you can't know for sure. ... If I have food for my kids, if she isn't hungry, she'll never want to go hit the streets. ... But if she is hungry, she'll struggle for the little she can earn herself.
``The root of the problem is economic,'' Norma insists. ``If you stabilize the family economically, you won't have prostitution.''
Although advocates of children's rights agree that economic well-being is essential to strengthening the fabric of the family - and providing a safety net for children - many also say that part of the battle against the sexual exploitation of children involves shifts in individual and social attitudes.
Internationally, that shift has begun only in recent years, notably in the wake of the UN's International Year of the Child in 1979. For years, groups like UNICEF, the UN's main agency for helping children, have focused their relief efforts on health measures that became known as the ``child survival'' revolution - aimed at saving the lives of young children through hygiene and immunization programs. In recent years, however, the growing children's-rights movement has tried to push child relief efforts beyond health issues. They ask the pointed question ``Survival for what?''
``Lowering infant mortality rates might be considered brilliant'' in the short term, says Peter Ta,con, director of CHILDHOPE, a Guatemala-based group that helps street children. ``But we have to realize that while we may be saving them for a period of time, what's really happening is that they're condemned to live, very often, condemned to an existence that is anything but life.
``You're also condemning the world to a real legacy of human degradation, of human deprivation. And as stewards of our sons' and daughters' futures, I don't think this is something we would want them to inherit from us.''
It has taken time, but gradually the international commmunity is responding. UNICEF, for example, has broadened its scope to include children in ``extremely difficult circumstances,'' and individuals within the organization are pushing for a more active involvement on matters of child exploitation.
Although few national governments have tackled the issue head on, there are signs of change. The Philippines, for example, under President Corazon Aquino, is setting up programs for sexually exploited children. Unlike former President Marcos, who publicly denied that child prostitution existed, Mrs. Aquino and her administration have been very open about the problem - even to the point of declaring June 1986 to May 1987 ``The Year of the Exploited Child'' in the Philippines.
At the local level, too, some individuals around the world are taking a stand. Their numbers are not very large, nor are their efforts necessarily well known - in fact, one home for ex-child prostitutes in Santiago shuns news coverage to protect the privacy of the children who live there. Still, in a few communities individuals are trying to help.
New Beginnings is one of the grass-roots efforts aimed at getting children off the streets. The Manila program is set up for sexually abused and exploited girls between the ages of 8 and 13.
``We are trying to give them a home where they can learn something useful, where they can have education, Christian teachings, and where they will be part of a loving family environment,'' says Enriquez. ``We are hopeful that if they stay with us long enough, we can change their outlook on life so that when they leave, they are new people. They can have a `new beginning' on life.''
The work isn't easy. Some of the girls run away - because they miss the excitement and freedom of the streets, or because they feel responsible for earning money for their families. What's more, as of this September the agency that has funded most of New Beginnings' first two years of work will no longer be able to pay, leaving the program $10,000 short - and its future in question.
``Of course, we can only help a dozen or 15 children out of thousands who are being prostituted,'' Enriquez admits. ``But as they say, the first mile begins with the first step, right?
``Well,'' he says gently, ``that's where we are now.''