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Child sex boom fueled by poverty

It's just another dark day in Thailand.

A girl sits among poultry and luggage in the back of a cart near the Cambodian-Thai border, about 75 miles northeast of Siem Reap, Oct. 16, 2008. Increasing poverty in Southeast Asia is heightening children’s vulnerability and contributing to the increasing number of them trapped in the multi-billion dollar commercial sex trade. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

BANGKOK, Thailand — Narisaraporn Asipong, a matronly social worker at the “Mercy Center” shelter met 8-year-old Niran (a pseudonym) five years ago in Klong Toey, Bangkok’s largest concentration of slum communities.

“His step-father was beating him so he was scared to go home,” says Asipong, who has worked with street children for the last seven years. “He came with me to Mercy Center and I enrolled him in school.” A year later, Niran returned home because he missed his mother. “One day, I saw him on the streets again,” she says. “He looked very skinny and unhealthy.”

Asipong was not surprised when she heard that Niran was living with an older man who offered him food, money and video games in exchange for sexual favors. “There are groups of people who take advantage of children and sexually exploit them,” says Asipong. “The children get tricked easily because of promises of quick money.”

Niran told Asipong he was sick, and had HIV/AIDS. The United Nations estimates that 1 percent of Thailand's population is infected with the HIV virus — nearly three times the rate in the U.S. “When I last saw Niran in the hospital he told me that he wanted to be a good boy again,” says Asipong. On Aug. 22, 2009, Aspiong attended Niran’s cremation ceremony in Kanchanabuori, Thailand.

Niran was just one of the estimated 1.8 million children worldwide trapped in the multi-billion dollar commercial sex trade every year. Commercial sexual exploitation of children is booming according to a new global report, and governments are not doing enough to protect young people.

"The recent economic downturn is set to drive more vulnerable children and young people to be exploited by the global sex trade," says Carmen Madrinan, executive director of ECPAT International, the organization that authored the August 2009 report. "The indifference that sustains the criminality, greed and perverse demands of adults for sex with children and young people needs to end."

Increasing poverty in children’s countries of origin and smaller budgets for social services are two of the factors heightening children’s vulnerability. Deterioration of living conditions often compels young people to abandon school in order to contribute to the family income, putting them at risk of seeking livelihood options that lead to their being exploited, according to ECPAT International.

As a result of the current global downturn, hundreds of factories have closed in Thailand, leaving thousands of both Thai and non-Thai workers unemployed. Unemployment is rising at a rate of about 100,000 workers a month and may climb to 1.5 million by the end of the year.

“If you ask me, the government is not correcting the source of the problem,” says Asipong. “It’s just treating the symptoms. Poverty is a big contribution to the problem in Thailand, especially in the countryside. Whether parents or children, both have to struggle to survive.”

Street children and stateless children are extremely vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation, says Amanda Bissex, UNICEF Thailand's Chief of Child Protection. "We need to improve law enforcement and the economic welfare of children," she says, "but we also need to address people's attitudes and create an environment where there is zero tolerance for abuse of children, whether in their home country or overseas."