Date: Sun, 21 Mar 1999 16:07:28 -0600 (CST)
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Child Prostitution a Growing Problem
By Nefer Munoz, IPS, 16 March 1999
SAN JOSE, Mar 16 (IPS) - The rise of tourism and growing rates of family violence have driven many children and adolescents in Costa Rica into the hands of juvenile prostitution networks.
Costa Rica is in vogue as a tourist destination and arrivals last year numbered nearly one million, according to official figures.
Other data compiled by the non-governmental organization (NGO) Casa Alianza, said 0.5 percent of visitors here came for so-called "sexual tourism".
Many of them, drawn by advertisements on the Internet and networks of hotel owners and taxi drivers, were guilty of exploiting young boys and girls, says Bruce Harris , an official with Casa Alianza.
"Because in Thailand and other countries in Asia, there are now increasing restrictions on sexual tourism, many of the tourists who looking for this vice, are now coming to Central America and other parts of Latin America", he says.
The government, however, is aware of the issue and has taken measures to combat the problem. Airliners bringing tourists to Costa Rica now carry printed warnings that it is illegal to engage minors in prostitution.
"This is part of a campaign against child prostitution that we are trying to promote", said Laura Chinchilla, a psychologist at the National Office for Children (PANI).
Authorities are concentrating their efforts on prevention "among the population at risk" which, they argue, is the sector most affected by domestic violence. "The most important thing now is to promote a decrease in violence within the family", said Chinchilla.
Two years ago, PANI, together with more than 20 government and non-governmental organizations formed a working group against the commercial sexual exploitation of children and adolescents.
Experts insist that violence within the households pushes many adolescents into running away from home and they become easy prey for sexual exploitation.
In one month last year, the Women's Delegation of Costa Rica received 392 complaints of domestic violence, of which 298 were new cases. The majority of the complaints (84.6 percent) were registered in the urban sectors of the capital province of San Jose.
"In Costa Rica, sexual exploitation of children often happens in an environment of impunity", said Heimo Laakkonen, a representative for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Costa Rica.
In January, two foreigners arrested when they were caught committing sexual abuse against minors in Quepos in the country's Central Pacific region were freed after paying a small fine.
The Costa Rican penal code does stipulate sexual exploitation of children as a crime. Rape is a penalty but the law absolves the victimizer if the woman is considered to be "a dishonest person".
The Working Group against the Sexual Exploitation of Children presented draft legislation to reform legislation concerning sex crimes which is still being studied in Congress.
"Another of the elements that is pushing prostitution among youth is the lack of training among the police, which turns the police into accomplices, aggressors or clients of the girl prostitutes", says Laakkonen.
The problem of child prostitution is common to all Central American countries and involves a complex network of factors that foster the growth of sexual exploitation and which includes hotel owners, taxi drivers and clients, according to a study conducted last year by UNICEF and the National University.
The study, titled "Sexual Exploitation in Costa Rica: Analysis of a Critical Route of Boys, Girls and Adolescents Toward Prostitution", says this activity threatens the rights of children.
The study, for which 121 children (boys and girls) were interviewed, found that all had witnessed or been the victims of a violent family past.
All the children came from poor households, 67.8 percent of them had alcoholic parents, 36.9 percent were drug addicts and 61.2 percent had witnessed physical abuse against their siblings.
"Girls and adolescents who are submitted to sexual exploitation are taught from a very early age that with their bodies they can get the affection and money that they couldn't get at home", said psychologist Gabriela Segura.
The expert, who has worked with girls and adolescents in the streets of San Jose, argues that young girls are stripped of their identity once the become prostitutes.
"They are turned into objects, into victims, and many times, into young mothers", she concluded. (END/IPS/nm/dg/pr-hd/ea/99)
Origin: ROMAWAS/SOCIETY-COSTA RICA/
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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