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Drea Knufken – WNN Features

Girl-child prostitute - Colombia

A CHILD IN DANGER

IS A CHILD

THAT CANNOT WAIT. . .

– Former UN Sec. General Kofi Annan –

Colombia is a land of contrasts, as anyone who’s read Gabriel Garcia Marquez can attest. It is the largest country in South America, with a 2005 population of 45.6 million, and known for its rich economic resources and its guerilla fighters, its natural beauty and its syndicated crime, its high-quality heart surgeons and its drug traffickers. The economy is doing well under the leadership of President Alvaro Uribe, and, as of 2000, it was home to two thirds of the world’s kidnappings.

A volatile country, if anything. A colorful country. Colombia is attracting increasing numbers of tourists as well, as the World Tourism Organization, which is having its November 2007 conference in Colombia, can attest. And underneath it all, in the shadows of the cartels, the syndicates, the beauty and the wars, are more than 1 million girl-children earning a living by selling their bodies.

Children become prostitutes for a variety of reasons. Poverty is often at the core: families prostitute out their girls in order to have enough income to survive; others sell their children to brothels and trade networks for the same reason. Other children independently flee abusive domestic situations for the promise of a better life and find themselves in the sex industry; still others were soldiers or otherwise affected by one of Colombia’s wars and, now displaced, find themselves with few options for surviving. Still others are kidnapped, or refugees from other regions.

Prostitution takes on different guises here. Some children end up in local brothels; others are placed into regional and international prostitution trade networks. These networks are often run by bigger syndicates also involved in narcotics, weapons, and counterfeiting. Children may be traded to neighboring countries like Venezuela, or to markets in countries as distant as Spain or Germany.

Whether instigated by adverse conditions at home or involuntary actions, child prostitution in Colombia is insidious as it is widespread. Colombia is known as a human supply company for prostitution networks abroad, the country itself is a known sex tourism destination, and prostitution is firmly embedded into the economy as a means of making a decent living wage. Still, as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the CRC, which Colombia signed and ratified in 1989 and entered into force Sept. 2, 1990, suggests, children need to be protected. This is not only for their own well-being—child prostitution is correlated with illness, infertility, post-traumatic stress disorders, homelessness, and other afflictions—but for the good of the entire society.

While the U.S. government helped to write sections of the CRC, the U.S. Senate has still not completely ratified the international treaty on the Rights of the Child because of ongoing contentions concerning sections of the Convention which prevent jurisprudence and sentencing against children under the age of 18. Currently inside the United States, numerous separate states continue today to charge and sentence children under the age of 18, which clearly goes against tenants of the treaty itself, leaving the U.S. laws far behind and outside the guidelines and jurisdictions of the CRC.

The Colombian government, in contrast, seems publicly to realize a greater need for the guidelines provided by the CRC. National Police have rounded up child prostitutes on several occasions and brought them to the Renacer Institute, a nonprofit organization which offers child prostitutes room, board, and education in exchange for a promise to stop working. Established as a nonprofit in 1994, the foundation has two houses that can support around 60 children. The Colombia Journal cites the example of Carolina and her sister, who ran away from their impoverished Bogota neighborhood in their mid-teens in order to escape familial abuse. It wasn’t long before the two girls were working the streets of Bogota, making an income as prostitutes. Several months later, they were rounded up by police and taken to Renacer. The National Police also run “Colombia Without Prostitution,” a prevention program aimed at preventing child prostitution through community and family education. The government has also collaborated with various NGOs to create a Plan of Action on Child Sexual Abuse in relation to its signing of the Convention of the Rights of the Child. (gvnet.com)

That said, the government’s role though has been unpredictable, fluctuating between support of the children, neutrality, and enmity. According to Human Rights Watch, police have periodically been suspected of waging war on street children rather than helping them, sometimes even shooting them on the streets. The government is also a major donor to Renacer, but has significantly cut funds in the past.

Despite difficulties, Renacer continues to be devoted to the cause of getting child prostitutes off the streets. Stella Cardenas Ovalle, Founding Member and Director of the Renacer Foundation, has, since 2001, been working hard to influence government policy and to steady law enforcement policies. Ovalle is building a long-term alliance of child protection organizations, like Renacer, that are only now beginning to network together. Using the power of numbers and statistics, the network will keep legal policy informed and work steadily to stimulate public awareness. The alliance will, if Ovalle’s projections prove correct, be today’s “most powerful catalyzing agent in the fight against commercial exploitation of children.” (Ashoka.)

So far, the Fundacion Renacer has worked with ECPAT International (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes), the Bogota District Council for the Comprehensive Care of Child Victims of Abuse and Sexual Exploitation, UNICEF, and many other organizations. Internally, together, they protect child prostitutes through programs ranging from vocational education to psychotherapy, with the ultimate goal of helping them lead relatively settled lives in society.

Still, there remains much work to be done, especially in light of the complexity of the situation.

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Sources for this article include the BBC News, the New York Times, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Emory Law – U.S. 2006 Spring Symposium, the UN Special Report on Violence Against Women (1997), the Houston Chronicle, Human Rights Watch, The Colombia Journal, the Associated Press, YouTube, Ashoka, and the World Tourism Organization.

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©2007 WNN – Women News Network