Child trafficking is a widespread phenomenon. Children make up 27% of the 40 million victims of trafficking worldwide and two out of every three identified child victims are girls. The 2020 Federal Human Trafficking Report states that the number of child victims of sex trafficking in the United States increased 55% compared to 2019.

Why are children trafficked?

Children who are trafficked are forced or persuaded under false pretenses to leave their homes. They moved to an unknown location — frequently in other countries — to work as sex workers, work under abusive conditions, marry men who are much older and also may be abusive, or commit crimes. These children are also used as drug couriers or dealers, and frequently ‘paid’ in drugs, so that they become addicted and are further entrapped.

Another form of child abuse is when children are forced to become child soldiers. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that ‘tens of thousands’ of girls and boys are forcibly enlisted in the armed forces of at least 17 countries around the world. The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers has noted that the issue of girls used as soldiers must be recognized, since they are particularly vulnerable to acts of sexual violence.

The reasons underlying trafficking include: poverty; unemployment; low status of girls; lack of education (including sex education) of children and their parents; inadequate legislation; lack of or poor law enforcement; and the commercial sexual exploitation of children by the media, a phenomenon increasingly seen worldwide.

Children exploited for sex work are prone to sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS. In addition, girls can have multiple pregnancies that they are forced to abort. Because of the conditions in which they are placed, children can become malnourished, and develop feelings of guilt, inadequacy and depression. They usually have no access to education, and lack opportunities for social and emotional development.

In South Asia, traditional practices that perpetuate the low status of women and girls in society are at the core of the problem. In Egypt, criminal gangs kidnap African migrants and subject them to the worst kind of abuses to reclaim steep ransoms from their families. It is estimated that between 25,000 to 30,000 people were trafficked in the Sinai Peninsula between 2009 and 2013.

In the United States, as many as 50,000 women and children from Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe are brought annually to the country and forced into sex work or work as practically indentured servants. The US government has prosecuted cases involving hundreds of victims. In other countries where this problem is more widespread, the prosecution rate is lower.

Child sex tourism

Child sex tourism is another form of trafficking, and it is concentrated in Asia and Central and South America. According to UNICEF, 10,000 girls annually enter Thailand from neighboring countries and end up as sex workers. Thailand’s Health System Research Institute reports that child sex workers make up 40% of prostitutes in Thailand. Between 5,000 and 7,000 Nepali girls are transported across the border to India each year and end up as commercial sex workers in Mumbai, Bombay or New Delhi.

Although the greatest number of children forced to become sex workers is in Asia, children from Eastern European countries such as Russia, Poland, Romania, Hungary and the Czech Republic, are increasingly vulnerable.

Child sex work does not show any signs of abating. In many cases, individual traffickers and organized groups kidnap children, take them across national borders and sell them for sex work, with border officials and police serving as accomplices. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women called attention to the levels of state participation and complicity in the trafficking of women and children across borders.

There are special social and cultural reasons for children forced into entering the sex trade in different regions of the world. In many cases, children from industrialized countries enter the sex trade because they are fleeing abusive homes. In countries of Eastern and Southern Africa, children who became orphans as a result of AIDS frequently lack the protection of caregivers and become, therefore, more vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation.

Trafficking of displaced and refugee children

The recent wars that have ravaged several countries have given rise to a large population of displaced children, many of whom become refugees in other countries. In many cases they have been separated from their families, which makes them particularly vulnerable to abuse.

Impact of sexual exploitation of children

Besides the moral and ethical implications, the impact that sexual exploitation has on children's health and future development demands urgent attention. Throughout the world, many individuals and non-governmental organizations are working intensely for the protection of children's rights. Many times, their work conflicts with the interest of local governments and powerful interest groups.

Among the U.N. agencies, UNICEF has been particularly active in calling attention to this phenomenon. It is addressing the root causes of sexual exploitation by providing economic support to families so that children will not be at risk of sexual exploitation, by improving access to education — particularly for girls — and by becoming a strong advocate for the rights of the child.

The work of non-governmental organizations and U.N. agencies should be a complement to governments' actions to solve this problem. Those actions should include preventing sexual exploitation through social mobilization and awareness building, providing social services to exploited children and their families and creating the legal framework and providing resources for psychosocial counseling and for the appropriate prosecution of perpetrators. The elimination of the sexual exploitation of children around the world is a daunting task, but one that is achievable if effective programs are put in place.