In Asia, Church Leads Fight Against Child Prostitution

NEW DELHI, India—Teenage girls are a rare sight in Ichowk village, northern Nepal. Most of them are in brothels in Mumbai and other Indian cities. “Abducted or sold by their own parents, husbands, or friends of the family, the girls are brought to cities, sold and distributed like commodities for prostitution,” according to an Oxfam Nepal study on the flesh trade in the Himalayan republic.

The root cause of child prostitution is “poverty and the great demand by pedophiles for [young] children,” said Lea Robidillo, Asia desk coordinator for the International Catholic Child Bureau (ICCB).

Many poor children from rural areas are forced into prostitution amid the booming tourism trade in Asian countries. The “importation” of children from rural areas and even across borders to tourist centers is common practice throughout many Asian nations. Girls from Laos and Vietnam work in sex shops in Taiwan and Thailand that masquerade as pubs and restaurants. Bangladeshi and Nepali girls, barely in their teens, abound in the red-light areas in India.

According to the Thailand-based ECPAT (End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism), eight Asian nations account for more than one million child prostitutes. India and Thailand head the list with more than 300,000 child prostitutes; in China, there are more than 200,000. The Philippines and Taiwan come next with approximately 100,000 each. Vietnam and Sri Lanka, respectively, have more than 40,000 and 30,000 child sex workers. Just 15 years ago Sri Lanka had only about 300 child prostitutes—mostly boys.

“The Church has played a prophetic role in exposing the evil of child prostitution behind tourism,” says Redemptorist Father Desmond D'Souza, former secretary of the Ecumenical Coalition against Third World Tourism (ECTWT), which was founded by the Protestant Christian Conference of Asia in the late 1970s.

During the 1980 World Tourism Organization conclave in Manila, The Philippines, the ECTWT coalition, led by the Catholic Church, held a simultaneous “critique” of tourism in which the dangers of unbridled tourism on local people were highlighted. Since then, the campaign by the ecumenical forum of Churches has helped “focus international attention on prostitution rackets behind tourism,” Father D'Souza recently told the Register.

Child prostitution attracted the attention of the forum in 1990 when a U.S. researcher released police data on pedophiles. “Only then did we realize it was happening all around,” said Father D'Souza, ECTWT secretary during 1990-93.

“With the boom in tourism, children were in great demand. The demand had reached such gigantic proportions that many villages in Thailand had no children.” Children were even brought from China, Vietnam, and Cambodia to tourist centers in Thailand, Taiwan, and the Philippines—all former (U.S.) army bases where prostitution was already entrenched.

“We decided to launch a separate forum to combat child prostitution. That was ECPAT,” the priest said. Elaborating further, Father D'Souza, who now campaigns against child prostitution in Goa, a popular destination on the Arabian coast for Westerners seeking “sex vacations,” said that “since the tourism lobby had launched counter-efforts against us (ECTWT), we thought it would be better to have a separate forum to highlight child prostitution. It is primarily because of ECPAT efforts fully supported by Asian Churches that child prostitution has become an international concern now.”

The forum is not just operating from Bangkok. “Every major Asian NGO (non-governmental organizations)—both Christian and secular—look to the forum for guidance in the fight against child prostitution,” said the Redemptorist priest.

Shirley Peiris of PEACE (Protecting Environment and Children Everywhere) said, “Commercial sexual exploitation of children in Sri Lanka began with the boost given to tourism, the open economy, and investment promotion zones. Pedophiles came in large numbers on charter flights and tourist visas were easily obtained.”

The blind pursuit of tourists' dollars has cost Sri Lanka and other Asian countries dearly. “Now it [child prostitution] is not confined to the tourist industry. We have our local pedophiles engaging in sex with children,” Peiris told the Register.

Prostitution has been a problem in Thailand for many years. But it was exacerbated in the 1960s with the presence of the U.S. military bases during the Vietnam War. It has continued to grow due to demand by locals and tourists.

The Thai city of Pattaya, about 80 miles north of Bangkok, is a favorite destination for Western pedophiles. “Sex tourists,” even in their 60s and 70s, can be seen strolling the streets with their arms around girls barely into their teens.

“The ongoing economic liberalization has obviously led to an increase in the number of visitors to the country,” says Good Shepherd Sister Michael Lopez, who heads Fountain of Life Center, Pattaya's premier rehabilitation center for child prostitutes. “This has aggravated the child prostitution problem.”

In response to the problem, Vietnamese government officials and Church workers gathered for four days last October to hammer out an action plan to counter child prostitution. The meeting came in the wake of reports that pedophilia was spreading in Vietnam and that the country was providing thousands of child prostitutes to neighboring nations.

The ICCB in Asia runs several programs for children damaged by prostitution in China and the Philippines. It also sponsors preventive projects in northern Thailand by developing community awareness about the dignity of the child. These projects are targeted “to alleviate the effects of child prostitution by furthering the understanding of these children's experiences and to ensure re-integration into normal life,” said the ICCB's Robidillo.

Since its founding in 1990, PEACE has pioneered the campaign against commercial sexual exploitation of children in Sri Lanka. It has motivated NGOs including the YWCA and LEADS (Lanka Evangelical Alliance Development Society) and Church workers to launch rehabilitation programs for child victims of sexual abuse. It has also succeeded in motivating the Protestant and Buddhist communities to put the child prostitution problem high on their agenda.

Sri Lanka ratified the U.N.‘s Convention on the Rights of the Child five years ago. In 1995, the penal code was amended to impose seven to 20 years’ imprisonment for sexual offenses and payment of compensation for victims. While a presidential task force for elimination of child sexual abuse was established in early 1996, a bill to set up a child protection authority is still being drafted.

Child advocates attribute the steady growth in child prostitution—despite laws against pedophilia—to “lethargic” law enforcement. For instance, Victor Bauman, a Swiss millionaire settled in Sri Lanka, was deported to Switzerland in March 1996 on pedophilia charges. Had Bauman's trial been conducted in Sri Lanka, it is unlikely that any measure of justice would have been served.

“If he had been charged here, it is doubtful he would have gone to prison,” said Salesian Father Anthony Humer Pinto who spearheads the campaign against pedophiles in Negombo, a tourist magnet near Colombo. “Even if he had been convicted, he has so much money, he would have been a king inside prison.”

Thailand has laws to curb child prostitution too. “The problem,” Sister Lopez said, “has been with the enforcement of these laws.” She acknowledged that a widespread campaign against child prostitution during the last few years had led to “stricter enforcement of the laws and more prosecutions, but the menace is still very much there.”

While prostitution damages the mental health of children, there is also a grave physical toll. “With the spread of HIV-AIDS, children are in greater demand in the sex trade as clients think sex with children will be safer. Greater numbers of children are being introduced into prostitution,” said Christian Brother S. James, ICCB South Asia coordinator.

The commercial sexual exploitation of children is “promoted and maintained by criminal networks, a nexus between police, politicians, and the Mafia,” noted Brother James, a member of the government's juvenile justice board in the Tamil Nadu state in southern India. The worst part, he added, “is that the legal system and the society as a whole treat these children more as those in conflict with the law than as victims needing protection and rehabilitation.”

Determined campaigning against child prostitution by NGOs, including Church groups, has met with some success in influencing society at large. Holy Family Sister Lawrencia Marques won a national award for social service last year with her pioneering work among prostitutes in Baina Beach in Goa.

A former Portuguese colony, nearly half of Goa's 1.2 million residents are Catholic. But Sister Marques, who heads Asha Sadan (House of Hope), said her work among prostitutes brought into the country by flesh traders has met with resistance even from local Catholics. In her programs to rescue prostitutes and their children by sending them to boarding schools away from the notorious beach, Sister Marques faces opposition. Those thriving from the prostitution trade are obviously opposed to her work, but surprisingly she said that “even Catholic women were upset with us. They see no reason why we of Goan origin should take up the cause of shameless women from elsewhere?”

Though local Churches are increasingly vocal about the atmosphere that has helped “sex tourism” flourish, the problem shows no signs of letting up soon. In a recent letter, the Indian bishops lamented that “South Asia with its lax laws, extreme poverty, and thirst for dollars is emerging as a new destination” for pedophiles.

Anto Akkara writes from New Delhi.

------- EXCERPT: Poor children are primary victims of Western 'sex tourists'