The “sugar-daddy” syndrome is widely accepted in Belize, especially where teenagers are concerned, but Minister of Human Development Peter Eden Martinez emphasized at the First National Symposium of the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, that such prostitution is not only morally wrong – it is downright criminal.
“There is a good Caribbean term that can be applied to this scenario – force-ripe,” said Martinez. “That is why I think the title of this national symposium is very appropriate. We are engaged in a fight for the innocence of our children and we need to do all that we can to help survivors to live with the dignity that is their inalienable human right.”
The matter is exacerbated by a worsening trend of child sex tourism – tourists who travel to countries such as Belize to buy the bodies of vulnerable children to satisfy their demented sexual cravings.
The term used to label this is no longer child prostitution, but commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC).
Begoña Arellano, Child Protection Specialist of UNICEF – The Americas and the Caribbean Regional Office, said that an estimated two million suffer in Latin America and the Caribbean each year from this scourge. There are about 1.2 million victims of trafficking. Interestingly, 60% of perpetrators of CSEC are nationals; they are not international tourists.
“Commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking are huge, and organized crime is behind all of it,” she noted.
It’s a huge business and it has been estimated that it generates US$12 billion a year globally, she added.
The victims are both boys and girls, but mostly girls. The bulk of the perpetrators are men. Minister Martinez, therefore, urged men to also take a firm stand against it.
“As Belizean men we have a duty to stand up and let our brothers who engage in this type of activity know that their behavior is totally unacceptable,” said Martinez. “It is downright criminal, as a matter of fact. I believe that as men we should make it very clear that we will not be complicit in this violation through our silence, inferred acceptance or encouragement. That also means that as Belizean men, we must take a stand against the traditional beliefs and negative gender stereotypes that underpin CSEC.”
“In many instances, children are sold by their impoverished family, or tricked by brothel owners or procurers with promises of legitimate employment,” says the overview prepared for the symposium.
Pearl Stuart, Executive Director of the National Committee for Families and Children (NCFC), notes that while people might be more outraged and more defensive of victims of child sex tourism, the “sugar-daddy” culture is worse. That is because it becomes embedded and part of the psyche, she said.
“The mother may say, ‘I need Mary to go to school; I can’t do it; sometimes the father is not in the home…’ maybe having experienced it herself,” Stuart explained. “The mother says at least if she can get an education and Joe Blow can help me pay my light bill, my gas bill, her life may be better than mine… That child has become a commodity.”
New legislation is being drafted to address the penalties, Stuart previewed: “One of the penalties we are looking at is life imprisonment.”
They are looking at all perpetrators, including parents, traffickers, and facilitators, those who link up perpetrators with victims by providing information. They are also looking at establishing a victim’s compensation fund, which could be financed with proceeds from the confiscated assets or monies earned from exploitation of the victims.
Kim Simplis-Barrow, Special Envoy for Women and Children, said in her opening remarks: “Until recently, many people did not want to acknowledge that CSEC is a horrific rights violation that many people war [against] and are actually experiencing. So for much too long, we ignore this phenomenon.”
Arellano noted that many of the perpetrators get away with the crime. She said that there is high impunity in the region, citing the example of Guatemala, where the impunity rate is 98%. This is compounded, she said, by high social tolerance.
Sometimes the predators are trans-nationals in crime who move freely between countries and utilize the Internet to establish contacts with their victims, as well as to propagate child sex pornography.
Noortje Denkers, Project Official, International Labor Organization, International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC) – Sub-regional office for Central America, Dominica and Haiti, said that within the region, exploiting children’s bodies for financial gain was criminalized for the first time in 1999.
Internet and cell phone technology has made it easier for perpetrators and their victims to go underground, worsening the problem.
Denkers, who has been based in Costa Rica for nearly a decade, said that children have moved from open view in the plazas: “…They are now sitting somewhere in a house with a cell phone, and they are now being paged, saying you have to show up somewhere….”
Some also use the Internet and investigators find that the IP [Internet Protocol] addresses migrate from Costa Rica and go via Russia to Belize and back to the US. Few exploiters are actually sentenced, she noted.
Imani Fairweather-Morrison, chair of UB, noted that child sex porn being hosted on the .bz domain, and such “smut and filth” has no business wearing the name .bz.
“We were outraged when we found that several of the sites using a .bz name were porn sites, some involving child pornography, etc.,” said Morrison.
She said that the University of Belize, minority partner in University Management Ltd, has been lobbying to get the sites down and would support legislation that criminalizes the hosting of such sites.
Denkers also notes, “There is an unbelievable amount of racism involved in sex tourism…” because the men look down on nationals of countries such as Belize and see women and children just as meat they can buy.
She notes that victims tend to come from disadvantaged backgrounds, characterized as follows: poor, living on street/beach, ethnic minority, low-level education, from dysfunctional or broken family, abused in home; but they also target people from middle-class backgrounds, influenced by materialism and consumerism (often as a result of peer pressure) and who are unaware of dangers/consequences.
Indeed the effects on victims are dire, and range from physical harm to their bodies to very long-term mental and psychological trauma.
Carol Smolenski, Executive Director – End Child Prostitution and Trafficking (ECPAT/USA), noted that her organization has established a Code of Conduct for the tourism business. This was introduced in 2005 and 50 companies have signed in Belize. In the US, the Radisson is the only company that had signed on.
The local situation was highlighted by Diana Shaw, Chairperson, Child Development Foundation (Belize), director of Marla’s House of Hope and attorney.
She noted that among the children who are at risk are, “Children under 12 years selling food and other items, or shining shoes, or begging for money and food on the streets…” and they fall victims “…when they don’t acquire enough money to contribute to the family income.”
Their families sometimes know that the child performs sex acts to get money and do nothing to help or intervene!
Shaw also pointed to another serious problem: “Adolescents having relationships (encouraged and approved by parents) with older persons who provide for them economically. The family receives benefits from this relationship which is reported to be prevalent among rural Mestizo and Latino communities in Belize.”
People need to understand the consequences of their actions, several presenters at the symposium noted. Shaw pointed to a gamut, including teen-age pregnancy and abortion, babies being given up for adoption, STDs and HIV, deepening the cycle of family breakdown and single-parenting, drug dependency, learning disabilities in children born to younger mothers, increased rebellion and resistance amongst adolescents who end up in the juvenile justice system as “uncontrollable,” and school dropout.
Here is the reality: the monies children get for this heinous act perpetrated against them is a pittance to those who engage in this form of exploitation: According to Shaw, it ranges from $20 to $300.
“Whatever income earned had to be shared with others, including parents, siblings and other sex workers,” Shaw notes.
She also said that CSEC, according to the latest survey in 2006, was the primary source of income for two-thirds of the victims in the study.
“More than two-thirds of the exploiters were men between the ages of 22 and 50, two were over 50, and three were under 22,” Shaw added. “More than half of the exploiters were from the same districts as the victims. Most of the victims were contacted directly by exploiters via phone and internet and most of the CSEC activity took place at the exploiter’s house.”
Mrs. Simplis-Barrow urged that Belizeans can no longer sit in silence and ignore the cries of children: “Time is of the essence, because whatever we do or whatever we do not do affects them now as well as shapes their future!”
She urged Belizeans to stare CSEC in the face and say, “NO MORE!!” and embrace a ‘zero tolerance’ mentality.
“Certainly, we cannot by inaction become accomplices to the crime of commercial sexual exploitation against our children. Rather, let us join forces and create a storm of intolerance against anything or anyone that even remotely resembles a threat against our children’s wellbeing,” she appealed.
Judith Alpuche, Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Human Development, said that the outputs from the symposium will form the basis of a coordinated national effort to tackle CSEC.