(WOMENSENEWS)--As Pakistan and India grappled with war and terrorism last week, the two nations joined five of their South Asian neighbors in signing a groundbreaking U.N. convention meant to combat commercial sexual exploitation of women and children, mostly girls. The pact was signed Friday at a dramatic meeting in Nepal of the seven nations.
"No civilized society can afford to ignore the welfare of its women and children," said Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military ruler and president. "These are heads of state making significant new commitments to protecting children," UNICEF spokesman Alfred Ironside said. "In the region, it means a lot."
The pact defines trafficking in women and children as a violation of human rights and the signers are called upon to pass criminal penalties against abusers, to take steps that promote children's well being and protect them from abuse, including educating them about their vulnerability and self-protection strategies.
The events last week follow a major push by the United Nations Children's Fund, known as UNICEF, to draw child sex profiteers into the sights of national and international law enforcement agencies.
A Million Children Exploited for Commercial Sex
"Millions of children throughout the world are exploited for commercial sex," wrote Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF, in a report on the global sex trade released last month. "Bought and sold like chattel, trafficked within and across borders, thrown into such situations as forced marriage, prostitution and child pornography, many suffer profound and sometimes permanent damage."
About a million children are drawn into the global sex trade each year, most of them girls, the UNICEF report said. Women and children are sold along the same trade routes traveled by drugs and weapons, especially in Southeastern Europe, and involve the same underground criminal apparatus.
In Asia, the sex trade is one aspect of an enormous informal labor market that often includes debt bondage. In India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Nepal and Thailand, for example, girls often are obligated to work as prostitutes to pay off money loaned to their parents or guardians, the report said. The girls are paid little money and most of their earnings must be used to pay their bosses for their food, housing and transportation.
Precise statistics on the number of children captured by the sex traders are difficult to obtain because sex trafficking is illegal and illicit. Where data exists, UNICEF says, definitions vary. Some estimates include street children who may sell sex if someone makes an offer. Other estimates include children working virtually as slaves in brothels or massage parlors.
Bangladesh Loses Thousands of Its Children Each Year
Sometimes, child prostitutes are drawn from poor villages to big cities, as is the case with the 400,000 or more child prostitutes in India. Other times, the sex trade draws girls to richer countries from poorer countries, such as Bangladesh, a nation that loses thousands of its children each year to the sex traffickers. More than 40,000 children are smuggled into the United States each year, to work in the sex industry, according to the Central Intelligence Agency
The payoff for profiteers is said to be enormous. Worldwide, commercial sexual exploitation of children is a multi-billion dollar industry. Within the borders of poor countries, the sex trade provides a huge transfer of wealth to the poorest villages.
In Thailand, for example, UNICEF estimates women working in the sex trade in cities send close to $300 million each year to rural areas.
The underlying causes of commercial sexual exploitation of children include poverty, gender discrimination, war, organized crime, globalization, greed, traditions and beliefs, family dysfunction and the drug trade, according to UNICEF and human rights groups.
Human rights groups and UNICEF also have documented the special threats of sexual exploitation spawned by war and armed conflict. Desperation often compels women and children to offer sex in exchange for food, shelter, vital documents or safe passage through a war zone.
Refugees are especially vulnerable to demands for sex by camp officials, border guards, police officers, and military personnel, these groups say. About 80 percent of the world's 35 million internally displaced people are women and children, according to UNICEF.
Systematized sexual abuse in the former Yugoslavia has been the subject of criminal trials, yet women and children in many other nations have suffered similar assaults. In Sierra Leone, Human Rights Watch interviewed girls as young as 12 who been forced to sexually submit themselves to armed soldiers. In East Timor, women were abducted, traded, raped and forced to do household chores. Similar dynamics put women and children at risk around the world, these reports say.
Marie Tessier is a journalist based in Bangor, Maine, who writes frequently about international affairs.
For more information:
How UNICEF is working to curb the sexual exploitation of children:
To download the UNICEF publication, "Profiting from Abuse":
V-Day Campaign to End Violence Against Women: