GUILLERMO XIMIN was born in the slums of Quezaltenango, Guatemala - one of 12 children. Before he was five years old, he was spending all day on the streets, his playground a garbage dump. Before he was 10, he was supporting himself by working as a servant. Before he was 15, he was working in a candy factory 13 hours a day, earning $3 a month, and was being used sexually by his female employer.
Today, Mr. Ximin directs a drama program at La Novena, a center for street children in Guatemala City.
``The problems these children have are the same problems I had,'' says Ximin. ``A stepfather who beat me, a mother who had no time for me, family breakdown, not enough to eat, no education, no pressure on me to accomplish anything, no objectives in life.''
What Ximin is describing is the landscape of poverty - the bleak environment in which hundreds of millions of children in developing countries are growing up, outcasts on the margins of their own societies. It is in this environment that they are most vulnerable, most likely to be exploited.
Because they have no personal or political power, children cannot apply pressure on their exploiters or on governments, nor can they retaliate. Furthermore, there is little short-term economic or political incentive for governments to come to the aid of children. Hence, governments generally attach a low priority to eliminating child exploitation.
Some governments flatly deny there is a problem. For example, nongovernmental organizations in Thailand estimate that there are at least 2 million child workers in Bangkok, and that many of them are locked in factories and forced to work long hours under inhuman conditions for exploitative wages. But Thailand's Department of Labor sees the situation differently.
``It's not serious,'' says Voravaun Thanaphibul, director of the department's women and child labor division. ``It's not too bad. In Bangkok, we only have 30,000 [children] in the factories. Last year we only had two cases of exploitation.''
Private agencies also estimate that there are some 40,000 child prostitutes in Thailand. Again, Ms. Voravaun has a different view. ``In my opinion, I think there is no child prostitution [in Thailand],'' she says.
It's an ``uphill battle,'' say those who are working to eliminate child exploitation. But at least the battle has begun, if only on a very modest scale. The International Year of the Child in 1979 was the bugle call. Since then, the number of private and semigovernmental organizations around the world that speak out on behalf of children's rights has been increasing. Defense for Children International was founded that year in Geneva. CHILDHOPE, an international agency for street children, started up in Guatemala only this year. Public awareness, workers in the field say, is definitely on the rise.
SOME governments even acknowledge the problem. Brazil requested help from UNICEF in 1984 in handling its huge street-children problem. Not only did Brazil's move spur UNICEF to develop programs for street children, but, according to Peter Ta,con, founder of CHILDHOPE, it set an example for other countries to face the issue more honestly.
Mr. Ta,con also sees an encouraging change in the approach of sponsorship organizations such as Save the Children and the Christian Children's Fund. These agencies have begun to use sponsorship funds donated for a child to aid his or her entire community.
Most experts agree that the elimination of child exploitation requires both specific measures to protect children and, ultimately, the eradication of the poverty that gives rise to it. But the first step, they say, must be a groundswell of public indignation and a determination to stop the abuse.
``Why should we care about child exploitation?'' Ta,con asks. ``If you don't care about kids, you're condemning the world to a legacy of real human degradation, human deprivation. But I believe that most people would want to help these kids if they knew how.''
Help for even one child is an important step, says Ta,con. ``If we're mesmerized by the macro, we'll never begin with the micro.''
In every country where the problem exists, there are individuals who have ``begun with the micro'' - the small steps that begin to change the ``macro,'' the big picture. One is Mark Connolly, founder of La Novena in Guatemala City. ``La Novena'' refers to Ninth Avenue - a street lined with bars and sleazy nightclubs where most of the city's street children hang out, beg, steal, sniff paint thinner, and generally live their lives.
But La Novena also means a haven for these children. It's a freshly painted, sun-filled building on the other side of town where they can find shelter, showers, and food, as well as counseling, education, and creative recreation. But what clearly means the most to the children is their warm, close relationships with a group of caring adults.
``Micro'' efforts on behalf of exploited children are going on in unexpected areas. Traditional law enforcement is seen by many observers as doing more harm than good to street children. Yet one judge in Guatemala is using her position to reach out and help the children that come through her court.
On any given day, half a dozen children wait to see Judge Aura Mar'ina Marcucci Roca of the National Juvenile Court in Guatemala City. They are usually street children who have been in trouble with the law. Judge Marcucci has been successful in encouraging them to come back just to talk - to feel, in a world where they are usually rejected, overlooked, or abused, that somebody respects and believes in them.
``These children are regarded as nothing more than delinquents,'' Ms. Marcucci says. ``People want to punish them and put them in institutions. But when they understand why these children get into trouble, they are willing to give practical help.''
Marcucci has recently become a consultant to UNICEF in Guatemala. Partly through her insistence, agency representatives there are developing programs to help street children. The government has also set up a National Commission of Action for Children, which supports the activities of nongovernmental organizations that are working to meet the children's needs.
Some individuals are exploring creative governmental approaches to the problem. A number of governments, for instance, are trying to find ways to replace family income that is now derived from child labor.
``We want to create conditions - by concentrating on antipoverty programs, education, health coverage, vocational training - so that very soon it will no longer be necessary for children to work,'' says Ashok Narayan, India's joint secretary of labor.
But most observers feel that in poor countries like India and Thailand, this day is far off. A more immediate question is how to minimize the exploitation of children who are now working. Some experts advocate government-subsidized midday meals for children who work in factories. Others believe that this would simply encourage parents to keep children working.
``The government is thinking of providing working children with nutrition, health care, education, all at the factory level,'' says Neera Burra, an Indian sociologist and researcher on child labor. ``This is the wrong way of going about it. If you provide midday meals to children in factories, more parents, for that meal, will send their children to work.''
Ms. Burra says the solution could be a government program which, instead of providing meals in factories, would provide them in schools. This would also address the crucial need, common in the third world, to ensure that more children get an education. ``The government did an experiment in Tamil Nadu State with midday meals in schools,'' says Burra. ``The number of children going to school there has increased substantially because of that midday meal.''
Education is regarded as essential for eliminating the exploitation of children, and, ultimately, for healing the economic ills that foster it. But even though primary education is technically free in most nations, the cost of uniforms, shoes, books, and building maintenance fees keeps millions of children out of school.
BURRA suggests that children be paid to go to school. She knows the idea is radical, but she insists that it is not necessarily impossible - it just hasn't been tried yet.
``Working children earn such a pittance,'' she says. ``The government could easily provide that, along with truly free primary education, with subsidized meals, and make it a stipendiary education. Obviously just free primary education is not enough. That child needs that rupee a day [about 8 cents] to take home.''
Many children in the third world who attend school drop out and go to work because they regard traditional education as irrelevant. All around them, educated people cannot find jobs.
``Why can't schools combine education with income-generating activities?'' asks Philista Onyango, a professor of sociology and expert on child labor at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.
``Schools could help these children, not only to develop their academic skills, but to be economically independent,'' Dr. Onyango says.
``If somebody can harness their creativity and skills and channel them properly, within the school system, these children could really be producing things, like home-grown fruits and vegetables, that we can buy locally,'' Onyango continues. ``They could be selling them and paying their school fees, buying uniforms, even helping their brothers and sisters. That way, a child doesn't need to go and work outside. Why don't we formalize it in school, so they do things that, even when they leave school, they can continue?''
EFFORTS to stop child exploitation must include help for families, in the view of many experts. In Thailand, the National Youth Bureau, a government agency, is developing preventive measures aimed at striking at the roots of the problem.
``I think the primary responsibility for the welfare of the child still lies with the family,'' says Saisuree Chutikul, secretary-general of the bureau. ``So we're trying to use the mass media to help bring the conscience of the family into focus.
``We're working with the TV and radio. We have a regular radio program broadcast all over the country every Saturday for five minutes, and we came out with a book [that we] distributed to disc jockeys,'' says Ms. Saisuree.
``We thought this is the only way that they can sandwich in between pieces of music what it means to have a loving family - the role of the father, for example. We're trying to campaign that fathers share the responsibility of raising children.''
While Saisuree agrees with many experts that the root cause of child exploitation is poverty, she sees another element that she feels will ultimately have to be taken up:
``Why are people greedy to have more money?'' she asks. ``Why do people prefer cash than to have their own children with them? Why do factory owners prefer not to give food to children and make them work 16 hours a day? I think that most of these problems we're dealing with now - basically, they're spiritual problems.''
As a step toward fighting corruption, which in many countries hampers the enforcement of laws against child exploitation, the Thai government has devised an innovative program.
``We have one institute belonging to the government, the Institute for the Development of Civil Servants,'' says Saisuree. ``It's something new. It's trying, through government channels, to instill a more moral and ethical approach to their work in all government officials at all levels.''
One positive sign in the ``uphill battle'' against child exploitation, observers point out, is networking - the sharing of information, ideas, and experiences - between activists in the field. People working in this field say that efforts like those mentioned above need not be restricted to one locality. They can be applied in other countries, on other continents.
In addition, activists fighting child exploitation say that more development agencies need to broaden the scope of their funding for children beyond their present emphasis on child survival, health, and nutrition. A decrease in child exploitation will inevitably represent a sound investment in the future - not only for developing nations, but for the world as a whole.