Saving Lost Childhoods

WHILE increased attention is being given to child prostitution, the trade in young lives still thrives in many parts of the world, blighting the futures of both individuals and nations.

Too often this activity is winked at by local authorities, some of whom patronize the brothels, or benefit from them financially. A report in the July-August edition of World Watch magazine describes the ``sex tourism'' industry of Southeast Asia, which grew out of the ``rest and relaxation'' stations of the Vietnam War era.

Sadly, numbers are on the rise. When this newspaper investigated child prostitution in 1987 as part of its ``Children in Darkness'' series, Thailand was thought to have 40,000 child prostitutes. World Watch now estimates Thailand has 800,000 child prostitutes. In addition, India has 400,000, and the Philippines 60,000. World Watch sets numbers in Brazil between 250,000 and 500,000.

International efforts to mobilize against child prostitution are underway. Branches of the United Nations are drafting new agreements to counter the sex trade. Thailand's government, which is publicly committed to fight the exploitation of children, has joined with the UN to set up a Center to Prevent and Suppress Child Prostitution and Labor Abuses. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is still in the process of being ratified by member nations (the United States is one holdout), makes states responsible for protecting children from sexual exploitation.

A number of countries - including Germany, Norway, and Sweden - have laws to punish citizens who engage in sexual acts with minors abroad. An Australian law passed in June provides for up to 17 years in prison for such an offense. The crime bill currently stalled in Congress includes a measure that would broaden the current US ban on interstate traffic in child prostitution or pornography to include sexual exploitation overseas.

Whether such efforts can move past pleasing rhetoric is the question.

Private groups, such as End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism, which has a New York branch, also are active in publicizing the problem and campaigning for political action.

Momentum should grow to wipe out this abhorrent trade in human lives. Government action is needed, and so is individual action, not least the rejection of what some campaigners against child prostitution call ``geographic morality'' - the willingness to do something in a foreign land one wouldn't do at home.

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