Activists, government officials, and prosecutors around the world are focusing unprecedented attention on one of the great hidden scourges of human society: the sexual abuse of children for money.
The newest indication of this concern is an international congress that will convene on Aug. 27 in Sweden. This five-day gathering, the first of its kind, will promote cooperation between child advocates and public officials in combating a problem that affects millions of young people every year.
Efforts to stop the commercial sexual exploitation of children, however, are producing results more tangible than the conference:
* A onetime musician named Sompop Jantraka identifies girls in the villages of northern Thailand who might be drawn into his country's voracious sex industry. During the past seven years, he has ensured that more than 400 "at-risk" girls have received an education, enabling most of them to choose to stay out of prostitution.
* In the Brazilian state of Bahia, a group called the Center for the Defense of Children and Adolescents has crafted a publicity campaign to raise awareness about the sexual abuse of children. The effort has included famous Brazilian samba stars and sought to sensitize police and judges to child sexual exploitation.
* A dozen developed countries have implemented or toughened laws designed to curb "sex tourism" involving minors - where people travel in order to seduce children or purchase their sexual services. Australia has been exceptionally aggressive in its pursuit of sex tourists, part of a broad concern with child sexual exploitation that is exposing abuses in many parts of the society.
* In Thailand and the Philippines, the destinations of many sex tourists, governments have tightened child-protection statutes. This March, a Thai court sentenced a German man, Bernd Karl-Heinz Nierenz, to more than 43 years in prison for sexual offenses involving four boys, a step that may signal a growing determination not to look the other way when foreigners are accused of sexually exploiting children.
These events are taking place amid an increasing popular awareness of the sexual abuse and exploitation of children. "There is a growing realization," says Ron O'Grady, the international coordinator of a group called End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism, "that society owes the child more than to use the child as an object for sexual gratification."
Bangkok-based ECPAT is an organizer of next week's World Congress against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, along with UNICEF, the Swedish government, and a consortium of private groups that promote the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
As popular awareness has grown, thanks in part to ECPAT's focus on the issue since it was founded in 1990, researchers are also understanding more about the causes of the commercial sexual exploitation of children. The prostitution of young people is less and less seen as a direct function of poverty, although the lack of money for children or their families is certainly a contributing factor.
Now there is growing scrutiny of the role that criminal organizations play in promoting the child sex trade. Other researchers suggest that more attention be paid to the sexual attitudes of the patrons of child prostitutes - the vast majority of whom are adult men - in order to find ways to dampen the demand.
What seems common to the lives of sexually exploited children is a disrupted or broken home. Five Monitor reporters interviewed more than two-dozen current or former child prostitutes worldwide. In all but one or two cases, families were torn by divorce, domestic violence, or the death of one or both parents.
Despite steps to counter the problem, it also seems clear that the number of children being forced, deceived, or lured into sexual exploitation is growing. UNICEF estimates that each year as many as 1 million children, which it defines as persons under 18, are drawn into prostitution in Asia alone. In North America, the figure is somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000, according to Canadian experts and the Washington-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The numbers used in discussions of this issue are imprecise and controversial, but it is certain that the child sex trade is spreading to areas that have been free of it. In Cambodia and parts of Eastern Europe, for example, children are now openly engaged in prostitution, an activity that was previously curtailed or nonexistent because of war or the absence of market economies.
EXPERTS also say that the fear of AIDS has increased a demand for younger prostitutes, since they are mistakenly thought to be less likely to carry HIV, the virus said to cause the disease. This trend has resulted in a rising demand for virgins. Arranging an encounter with a virgin can net a brothel owner hundreds of dollars in places where time with an experienced prostitute costs much less.
Kien Serey Phal, director of the Cambodian women's development association, says she knows of at least 30 young girls who have been "re-virginized." The term refers to a surgical procedure performed so that a brothel owner can again demand a premium price.
What is 'commercial sexual exploitation' of children?
The label covers a multitude of abuses. Some points of clarification:
* In terms of numbers, adolescent girls are the most affected. In many countries recruiters use deception, force, or promises of high pay to bring girls into the sex trade. In many cases, parents agree to send their daughters into prostitution and accept advances on their earnings. Some children volunteer for this work in order to help their parents.
: Adolescent boys are also subject to commercial sexual exploitation, although their numbers are fewer. They are much less likely to be found in brothels and generally come into prostitution differently. Homeless boys are often befriended by men seeking sex, an experience that can lead a child - boy or girl - to see prostitution as a livelihood.
* The number of prepubescent children being sexually abused by adults who pay for the experience appears to be lower still, although it is impossible to quantify. Experts say that most sexual abuse of children occurs in the home. Nonetheless, there are instances where relatives, guardians, or pimps prostitute children who haven't reached puberty.
* Some poor countries have tried to blame visiting Westerners for child prostitution, but child advocates say that most children are exploited commercially by adults of their own nationality. Foreigners do have an impact beyond their numbers because they typically pay relatively large amounts of money for sex with a child, boosting the supply, and because they tend to be responsible for the production and dissemination of child pornography.
* Child prostitution is often linked with pedophilia, a condition in which an adult has a sexual desire for children. As illustrated in the furor unfolding in Europe over Marc Dutroux, a Belgian electrician charged with abducting and imprisoning young girls, the activities of alleged pedophiles draw intense media coverage.
Nonetheless, pedophiles are not the main impetus behind the commercial sexual exploitation of children, experts say. That is the province of the brothel patron who wants a young prostitute, the sex tourist who seeks an unusual experience, or those who are indiscriminate about the age of their sexual partners.