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Updated: 21-March-2012


According to Prof. Martin Patt, Professor Emeritus, University of Massachusetts, the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, otherwise known as "Child Prostitution" encompasses the exchange of sexual services for remuneration or for other forms of consideration, including food, housing, drugs, or other commodities or intangibles such as approval or care. It is an age old and global problem that has existed for centuries.

"It has rightly been called the ultimate evil. It denies children their fundamental rights. It has devastating psychological and physical consequences for them. It is a perversion of the natural order - adults should be there to protect and nurture children, not take advantage of their emotionally and physically vulnerable state." -  Keynote address, Stockholm Congress 1996 by Peter Piot, Executive Director, UNAIDS

In addition, the online Wikipedia defines prostitution of children as the commercial sexual exploitation of children in which a child performs the services of prostitution, for financial benefit. The term normally refers to prostitution by a minor, or person under the local age of majority. In many countries there are specific laws against child prostitution which may include people who are older than the local Age of consent. The form of child prostitution in which people travel to foreign countries for the purposes of avoiding laws in their country of residence is known as child sex tourism.

Country Overview

"Children in Malawi continue to be involved in sex work despite that the country ratified the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. Large numbers of children, some as young as 12 years old, are seen lurking on street corners, near hotels, bars and other entertainment places," writes Piliraniu semu-Banda.

The United Nations treaty recommends that children everywhere have the right to survival, to develop to the fullest, to protection from harmful influences such as abuse and exploitation and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life.

In Malawi, reliable national data is scarce as no comprehensive research has been carried out so far except for a few localized and often district-level surveys here and there. One such good example is the Survey on Adolescent Commercial Sex Workers in Malawi, which was basically a case study of Mzuzu and Salima, conducted in July 1998 by the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), a leading human rights non-governmental organisation in Malawi.

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bullet1  Commercial Sex Workers Report (PDF)  
Salima is a community of mixed groups - prostituted women, perpetrators of prostitution and those who may not be directly connected with the prostitution market but are vulnerable to becoming either prostituted persons or perpetrators of prostitution. It is the existence of the bottlestores (pubs) as well as the assortment of the nature of individuals and families inhabiting the area that lends itself to various negative impacts on the different members of the community. A significant part of this community that is the victim of such negative impact is the group of adolescent girls who share a similar life-situation by virtue of their being adolescent, being girl-children and being in close proximity to the Boma (central area).

These girls have either not attended school or have been made to leave school. Most of these girls are illiterate and unskilled. These girls spend lesser time as children do and more as adults performing the duties of the household and attending to the needs of the family. The most risky effect of being embedded in an environment of prostitution is that these girls are often faced with situations that make them very vulnerable to being prostituted or becoming part of the prostitution market. The vulnerability arises from various factors that are group-specific (young adolescent girls) as well as those that emerge from the family / community situation and the environment of the prostitution market. According to the survey, the young adolescent girls are not allowed the opportunities that other children have during that development stage. Not being able to go to school and not having had any opportunity of learning or utilizing skills, these girls do not have the benefit of any productive time to themselves. This makes them extremely vulnerable to being attracted to the proposition of supporting the family through prostitution. Further, these girls already having low self-esteem and subjected to constant sharing of responsibilities cannot realize the full impact of their own victimization by their families when they are pushed into prostitution by the parents. They cannot protest against any physical or sexual abuse or violation of their rights being carried out against them whether it is by their own family members or other members of the prostitution market. Most of these girls are found helpless human beings by virtue of the opportunities they have been denied during their upbringing.

Key Issues (Factors & Challenges)

The catalyzing factors creating situations of vulnerability of the adolescent girl both in Salima and across the country arise from causes that are internal as well as external to the individual girl, as follows:

1. Lack of or absence of Vocational Skills
Most girls are not equipped with any skills that can be effectively utilized for earning a living. In crises (whether family or individual), they face an imminent need to work and earn for survival. The girls are forced to interact with members of the market that include bar-owners, prostituted women, customers, male-keeps and pimps. There are incidences of sexual exploitation or abuse that create tremendous emotional and social trauma for the young girl who then further gets into the mode of guilt, shame and self-rejection. In a large number of girls, this state creates an acceptance of the prospect of prostitution being the only way to gain some ‘status’ through becoming a source of a more lucrative means of living and support to the family. Alternately, during crisis situations the family forces the girl into prostitution itself.

2. Low self-esteem
Due to poverty and other factors (like orphanhood, child-headed familiy, etc) the young adolescent girl tend to have very low self-esteem. She has a negative self-image caused by various factors such as lack of education, dysfunctional family relationships, abusive family members, very poor social and economic situation of the family and her staying in a stigmatised locality. The resultant low self-esteem is a principal contributory factor to their belief that they are not talented, cannot learn jobs that require skill, and that they are of no use to the family in times of need. The one thing that they have observed from their childhood that they believe requires no skill, qualification or learning is the act of prostitution.

3. Lack of Knowledge / Awareness of the consequences of being prostituted
In the eyes of the young adolescent girl, the prostituted woman is one who does not have to labour hard and yet earns ten-fold of the earnings that her entire family can earn. Besides, she enjoys the advantages of being able to interact openly with the opposite sex, drink, smoke and put on make-up. Thus, the image of the prostituted woman, in terms of the occupation that she is involved in, is not entirely negative in the eyes of some adolescent girls. Ultimately the adolescent girl sees the prostituted woman as the one who gets richer food, affords better comforts, is socially satisfied, able to support her family comfortably and is an economically independent woman.

4. The Development Stage of Adolescence Coupled with Lack of Knowledge of Sexuality
The young adolescent girls are at that stage of development when their curiosity regarding their own body, the opposite sex, and the nature of sexual relationships is at a high. Also being in an area of prostitution, they have had experiences, whether vicarious or physical, that has aroused their curiosity about sexual behavior and especially about prostitution. However, they have a lack of knowledge of sexuality due to either absence of proper role models, lack of parental guidance, inhibitions to discuss sexual needs and behavior, or absence of persons they can trust or confide in. These conditions create situations of high risk when the young girl is involved in situations of interaction in the prostitution market or interactions with the opposite sex of her age. Any negative incidences have a direct impact on her route into the prostitution market.

5. Pressures of the Family and Environment and Pulls of the Prostitution Market
The young adolescent girl faces double forces thus accelerating her vulnerability to the prostitution market: both in terms of pressures from the family and community and pulls from the prostitution market. The family pressurizes her in terms of her ‘duty’ to help in terms of financial support and her potentiality to do so. Her exposure and interaction in the prostitution market creates forces of attraction for her in the form of the apparent independence, the colorful social life and opportunity to earn sufficiently to be able to afford the comforts of life.

How would interventions benefits benefit children, families, communities...?

The most direct consequence of not addressing the problem is in terms of the continuous inflow of girls into prostitution. Besides the illegal activity of child prostitution being precipitated, there are children being subjected to the dangers of innumerable health hazards and to various types of sexual abuse and exploitation.

Another direct consequence of not addressing the issue of vulnerability of the adolescent girl child is the increase in the number of families living a parasitic existence at the cost of the child's life. This further leads to a demonstration effect for the other families who begin to give credence to the act of prostituting a child for the survival of the family.

Overall, the effect of the problem not being attended to is a slow anomalous acceptance of the unexpressed yet widely practiced norm of exploitation of the girl-child, the sexual abuse of the child, and of child prostitution. The occurrence of the prostitution of a child becomes a common phenomenon that no longer summons the sensitivity or even attention of the community. There is a growing lackadaisical attitude and apathy not just towards this inhuman treatment of the girl-children of the community but also even towards the girl-child of one's own family.

An effective and timely intervention can therefore play a significant role towards addressing the present needs and problems related to the vulnerability of adolescent girls in the country. Attending to the problem will result in:
bullet Providing that alternative for the adolescent girl away from the route of prostitution.
bullet It would give her the inputs to resist efforts being made by family or community members.
bullet she would be armed with adequate information of productive and unproductive behavior and their consequences.
bullet They would be equipped with a better capacity to judge the consequences of entering the prostitution market in terms of its costs vis-ą-vis its seeming benefits.
bullet Interventions to address the problem will also empower the girl as well as their families to resist any temptations or bribes being offered to them by the members of the prostitution market, such as unscrupulous brothel-keepers.

There would be an overall impact on controlling the crime of child prostitution. The interventions would also have a positive impact on the phenomenon of the HIV/AIDS risks.

Specific Recommendations

bullet Empower the adolescent girls - economically, socially, psychologically - in order to enable them to deal with factors of vulnerability to the prostitution market.
bullet Provide skills-development to adolescent girls towards preventing vulnerability to prostitution.
bullet Provide functional literacy to adolescent girls towards empowering them to deal with factors those cause their forced entry into the prostitution market.
bullet Provide awareness to adolescent girls related to factors of vulnerability to the prostitution market.

The approach should focus on carrying our intervention work that could be done at the following three levels:

(i) Individual-specific Intervention
This would involve empowering each individual girl through inputs of skills-development, literacy, and self-reliance towards making educated choices and enacting them.

(ii) Group-based intervention
The aim is to enable the formation and participation of the group of adolescent girls towards bringing about self-help and support to other adolescent girls who are vulnerable to prostitution.

(iii) Intervention at the level of the Community
The work would target local communities to empower and help to create an enabling environment towards increasing awareness of vulnerability of the adolescent girl-child and control of the crime of child prostitution.

1. A Study on Adolescent Commercial Sex Workers in Malawi - A Case Study of Mzuzu And Salima: CHRR, 1998.
2. http://gvnet.com/childprostitution/index.html
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution_of_children
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