Twenty years ago, I checked into a hotel room in northern Thailand only to discover a 14-year-old girl sitting nervously on the bed. I assumed the hotel's management made a mistake by giving me the wrong key to a room that was already occupied. I quickly learned from the desk clerk that this young girl "came with the room." When I informed the clerk I was not interested in having her stay with me, the desk clerk quipped "the cost of the room is still the same."
This incident occurred 10 years before the inception of the United Nation's Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention stipulates that member states must respect the rights of the child to be protected from economic and sexual exploitation and from performing hazardous work.
Although almost every nation in the world is signatory to this convention, its enforcement has been hollow and weak and has offered little remedy for the injustices children throughout the world are forced to endure.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), approximately 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 work in developing countries.
Almost two-thirds of the world's child workers are in Asian countries. These children are often made to work 10 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, in cramped and squalid conditions in factories, on construction sites, for domestic service, and in brothels. Under these circumstances, children are denied a basic education, their health tends to be poor, and they are deprived of the chance to lead a normal family life.
Since the start of the Asian financial crisis two years ago, children have increasingly become involved in dangerous and illegal activities.
The sale and trafficking of children across national borders by organized networks for prostitution and dangerous work in construction, factories, and domestic service are worsening. The UN estimates there are 1 million children in Asia involved in the sex trade, often under conditions indistinguishable from slavery. These children suffer extreme physical, psychological, and emotional abuse, and are exposed to sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS. Younger and younger children are being sought for the sex trade because of the erroneous, yet widespread, belief that young children are likely to be "AIDS free."
Compounding the problem, sex tourism and pornography involving young girls and boys are flourishing, especially on the Internet.
The number of children involved in drug trafficking is particularly worrying. More and more children in Thailand are trafficking amphetamines that are manufactured in Thailand and Burma (also known as Myanmar).
Adult drug traders make use of children because they can be paid less and, if they are caught, the penalty will be lighter for them than for adults.
Children have worked for thousands of years. This may not be a bad thing as long as children are able to develop their own skills within the security of their family and community in a safe, healthy, environment where there is access to education.
Child labor becomes a serious problem when adult employment is lowest and children are exploited because they are the cheapest source of labor. Being more vulnerable physically, children are more apt to suffer serious work-related injuries and illnesses than adults doing the same kind of work.
I sometimes think about what became of that young girl in the hotel room 20 years ago. Today she would be in her mid-30s.
Perhaps she has been fortunate enough to turn her life around. However, this woman may never have escaped the cycle of poverty and exploitation. If she has children, it is possible they may be suffering from the same indignities she experienced two decades ago.
International organizations and governments have recognized the problem of child labor and sexual exploitation.
On Nov. 6, the US Senate ratified the ILO's "Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention" which was unanimously approved in June by all 174 ILO members. However, the lack of political will to enforce existing international and domestic laws remains.
If the menace of child labor is to be effectively addressed, people must be empowered at the community level. Because without empowerment at the community level, mechanisms to hold governments accountable to act decisively against child labor and sexual exploitation will never develop.
If societies are unable to create the links between empowerment, democracy, and health, then millions of other children in Asia and elsewhere are destined to have lives that are voiceless, rootless, and futureless.
*John J. Brandon, a Southeast Asia specialist, is The Asia Foundation's assistant director in Washington. The views expressed here are his own.
The rights of children
The 10th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was Saturday. The convention has been ratified by 191 countries, but not by the United States.
The following is a summary of the convention adapted from a Nov. 8 report by Save the Children titled 'Children's Rights: Reality of Rhetoric?'
The convention incorporates the spectrum of human rights - civil, political, economic, social, and cultural - and sets out ways in which these should be made available to children. Among its provisions:
*The definition of children as all persons less than 18 years of age, unless the legal age of majority in a country is lower.
*Basic civil rights and freedoms, including the right to a name and nationality, freedom of expression, thought, and association, access to information, and the right not to be subjected to torture.
*The right to live with parents, to be reunited with parents, and, if that isn't possible, to have appropriate alternative care.
*Rights related to health and welfare, including the rights of disabled children, the right to health and health care, social security, child-care services, and an adequate standard of living.
*Rights to education, play, leisure, and participation in cultural life and the arts.
*Special protection measures covering the rights of refugee children and those caught up in armed conflicts, children in the juvenile justice system, children deprived of their liberty, and children suffering economic, sexual, or other exploitation.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society