[OUTLOOK]Sexual use of children must cease

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[OUTLOOK]Sexual use of children must cease

As you read this sentence, a child is being sexually abused somewhere in the world. From the suburbs of Tokyo to the brothels of Bangkok, the train stations of Moscow to the truck routes of Tanzania, the sidewalks of Manila to the pornographic Web sites viewed in Paris, the outrageous is now commonplace. Girls and boys are bought and sold like commodities, products in a multibillion-dollar sex industry built on greed and victimization of the least powerful.

An estimated 1 million children enter the sex trade in South and Southeastern Asia each year. Trafficking in children and women for commercial sexual purposes in the Asia-Pacific region alone has victimized some 30 million people over the last three decades.

The time has come for outrage and decisive action. At the second World Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, held in Yokohama, Japan, this week, the world is watching to see if leaders will have the courage to commit themselves to stop this intolerable problem.

There are few more shocking violations of children's rights than commercial sexual exploitation. A child has the right to be free from abuse, receive an education, and to play. Children who are sexually abused suffer damage ?sexual, physical and emotional ?that can last a lifetime or result in early death.

Sexual abuse and exploitation are not confined to brothels. They often begin at home or in school by people whom children trust or cannot challenge. Sexual abuse puts children at risk of being drawn into the sex trade. Both boys and especially girls are targets. Groups like refugees, orphans or abandoned children are the most vulnerable. This traffic has flourished for a wide variety of reasons, including war, deepening poverty, rapid urbanization, the breakup of traditional families, loss of community, consumerist values and sensationalist mass media.

Sexual abuse of our children, in all its forms, is a crime, and it must be stopped. Five years ago, governments gathered in Stockholm for the first World Congress against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children and adopted an unequivocal position: This shameful abuse of the human rights of children, so long a dirty secret, must end. Governments and community groups together affirmed in Stockholm that children are not property to be bought and sold.

Since Stockholm, public awareness has increased. Child-ren have been removed from abusive situations and helped to recover. Projects have sought to protect young people who are particularly vulnerable to abuse. Research has improved our knowledge of those who are likely to exploit children.

At the global level, three new treaties address sexual exploitation and abuse: an International Labor Organization Convention, which calls the involvement of children in prostitution and pornography one of the worst forms of child labor; a protocol on trafficking to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime; and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which strengthens international prohibitions on the sale of children.

In Japan, important legislation was passed in 1999 that imposes stiff penalties for child pornography, prostitution and trafficking of children. Japan has also encouraged regional meetings to address these problems.

The Yokohama congress must build on the work begun in Stockholm. Using the force of the law to prosecute perpetrators must be a key goal. Twenty-one nations have adopted extraterritorial legislation to prosecute nationals who have committed offenses against children in other countries. Although addressing only one aspect of the larger problem, these laws must be used aggressively to bring an immediate halt to trafficking and profiting from exploited children.

It takes more than government action to stop the exploitation of children. Individuals must get involved. This is the simple notion that lies at the heart of the Global Movement for Children, which UNICEF is pleased to be a part of: the idea that every caring person can make a difference in a child's life.

Hotel clerks and taxi drivers must not look the other way when illicit deals involving children are made. Neighbors must not turn a blind eye when they see or suspect abuse. Families must ensure that the home is a safe space, and intervene swiftly if they suspect any family member is an abuser.

People must stop buying child servants. And wherever those who profit from exploiting children are found, they must be brought to justice.

The Yokohama conference offers us the chance to rededicate ourselves to eliminating sexual abuse and exploitation of children as an urgent global priority. The lives and futures of millions of children hinge on our resolve.


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The writer is the Executive Director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

by Carol Bellamy

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