by Diego Cevallos
(IPS) MEXICO CITY -- "If you turn up dead someday, no one is going to wonder how you died," said Kathy, a Honduran girl caught up in a child sex ring.
She is just one of an estimated 40,000 minors in Central America whose childhood has been stripped away for the pleasure and profit of adults.
These girls, boys and teenagers are offered up as "merchandise" in brothels, photographed nude for Internet websites, or forced to perform in live sex shows. Most are poor, and all are utterly denied their right to a safe and happy childhood.
That basic human right has been stolen from them by the exploiters, pimps and "clients" who fuel the booming business of child prostitution and "kiddie porn."
Bente Sorensen, coordinator of an International Labor Organization (ILO) regional project to fight commercial sexual exploitation of children and adolescents, and Josˇ Manuel Capellin, director of the Honduran headquarters of Casa Alianza (the Latin American branch of the New York-based Covenant House, a child advocacy organization), described the situation in Central America as "extremely serious."
Chances are that Kathy, whose personal account appears in an ILO report, remains a victim of sexual exploitation by adults -- unless she has met the same fate as Elena, another young Honduran girl trapped in the same situation.
"I'm afraid of what might happen to me here (the place where she was being forced to work as a prostitute), I'm afraid for my life," Elena told the ILO researchers before she died in 2002.
In Honduras alone, between 8,000 and 10,000 girls and boys are the victims of sexual exploitation, according to a still unpublished Casa Alianza study conducted last year in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
According to Capellin, who provided IPS with some data from the upcoming report, the researchers found minors under 18 years of age working as prostitutes in all of the 50 brothels they visited in Guatemala.
In a telephone interview from Honduras, Capellin noted, "Sexual exploitation is a product of poverty, and in Central America, 80 percent of the population is poor, and half the population is under 18 years of age."
Casa Alianza, which works with street children in numerous countries, estimates that between 35,000 and 50,000 girls and boys are forced into prostitution in Central America.
For their part, the ILO researchers say they cannot provide hard figures on the number of minors in the region who have fallen victim to commercial sexual exploitation, but according to Sorensen, "there are thousands of them."
In the 1990s, a series of international agreements were created to protect children and teenagers from sexual exploitation.
Most of these instruments have been signed and ratified by the countries of Central America, but only Costa Rica, El Salvador and Panama have updated their legislation to address the issue, while similar legal reforms are still being debated in Honduras and Guatemala.
Throughout the region as a whole, "the problem of sexual exploitation is widely recognized, and that helps a great deal, but it hasn't eliminated the problem, and it doesn't make up for the lack of help given to the victims in most cases," said Sorensen, interviewed from her offices in Costa Rica.
The investigations conducted by both the ILO and Casa Alianza have exposed an entire sex tourism industry in Central America specialising in child prostitution. There is also evidence of boys and girls in the region being used to supply material for child pornography websites on the Internet.
Marisol Rodriguez, the Honduran special prosecutor for crimes against minors, reported in late February that she and her counterparts in the other Central American nations had uncovered what appears to be a large and well-developed Internet child pornography ring operating in the region.
In a 1997 study, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) reported numerous cases of men from the United States and Europe who moved to Central America after retirement specifically to have easier access to child prostitution services.
Based on interviews with minors forced to engage in prostitution, UNICEF revealed that close to 70 percent of them had sexual relations with at least one or two partners every day.
In addition, 93 percent of these children and teens had at some time contracted a sexually transmitted disease, such as genital herpes, gonorrhoea, syphilis and genital warts.
Almost 65 percent of the girls interviewed by UNICEF said that their first sexual relations, before entering a prostitution ring, had been with their fathers or mothers, followed by 10 percent with uncles, another 10 percent with brothers, five percent with boyfriends and 2.6 percent with friends.
UNICEF also noted that once minors are in a child prostitution ring, it is very difficult for them to get out, because any attempt to escape is likely to meet with threats, beatings or torture.
Psychologists say that a minor subjected to sexual exploitation is left with permanent psychological scars that can only be alleviated with professional treatment. This kind of help, however, is available to only a small minority of the young victims in Central America, according to both the ILO and Casa Alianza.
March 9, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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