Sunday, February 04, 2007

Global tragedy: The world's suffering children

By Douglas Savage

Irecall a conversation I had with a shopkeeper in the Suq Hamadiya, the traditional market in the Old City quarter of Damascus. As we sipped our tea, I noticed a small boy in the neighboring shop. He was sitting on the floor repairing an antique carpet under a single, dim light bulb.When I expressed concern to my host, he responded casually, "Yes, probably he will be blind." Then he offered me more tea.The plight of children facing violence, exploitation and abuse is a global tragedy. The numbers are staggering.

UNICEF, the United Nations agency charged with protecting the world's children, estimates that there are nearly 250 million child laborers worldwide, with nearly three-quarters engaged in the most hazardous forms of work.

Over 1 million children are trafficked annually, many to face sexual exploitation and abuse.An estimated 300,000 child soldiers, some under the age of 10, are forced to participate in armed conflicts around the world.These statistics afford us the luxury of concern at an intellectual level with no feeling of direct responsibility.

In our interconnected world, however, the buck is not so easily passed. The complex web of global capitalism links us in ways not readily apparent.We need only go as far as the local candy store for an example.

As we present our loved ones with boxes of Valentine's Day chocolates next week, we might consider how they were made. In 2001, the U.S. State Department and the International Labor Organization reported extensive use of child labor on cocoa farms. One study estimated a quarter of a million children between the ages of 9 and 12 were working in hazardous conditions on West African farms, many of them victims of child trafficking.

Despite industry promises of voluntary enforcement of labor standards, the problem continues. In response, child labor advocates have mounted a campaign to encourage consumers to boycott most corporate producers and only buy chocolate independently certified to have been made under international "Fair Trade" criteria.

While our participation in the process of exploiting child workers is often unintentional and unrealized, some members of our society bear more direct responsibility for the most egregious forms of intentional abuse involving the sexual exploitation of children.

Child prostitution, child pornography and trafficking in children are crimes that know no geographical boundaries.Pamela Shifman, UNICEF's adviser on violence and sexual exploitation, notes that while some of the worst abuses take place in war zones, the trade in children for sexual purposes is a global problem.

She'll speak at the Feb. 6 Great Decisions lecture at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.World Vision, a non-profit relief and development organization, estimates that 2 million children worldwide are trapped in the commercial sex trade.Many of these children are either sold into prostitution to pay off family debts or forcibly recruited on the street.

As Shifman explains, "Sometimes children are lured into the hands of traffickers through false advertising; sometimes children are lured into the hands of traffickers by promises of a better life; but very often, children are lured into the hands of traffickers because they see no alternatives for themselves and their families, and they are desperate, and so they are willing to believe anything and do anything in order to survive."

The trafficking problem has been compounded by the Internet-fueled growth of organized child pornography and child-sex tourism operations.Typically located in poorer countries, these criminal enterprises owe their survival to clientele from wealthy nations. World Vision estimates that U.S. citizens account for an estimated 25% of child-sex tourists worldwide, with a much higher percentage in Western hemisphere countries such as Mexico and Costa Rica.

In an earlier age, we often saw our responsibility toward the world's children in terms of charity.Those of us growing up in the 1960s may recall classroom drives to collect toiletries for Project HOPE, which sailed its hospital ship around the world.

In the 21st century, the world has gotten considerably smaller, and our connection to the lives of its children more direct.As Americans, we must accept our role not only as benefactors but as part of the problem.We can choose to ignore the global implications of our actions, mindlessly buying the products of child laborers and otherwise contributing indirectly or directly to the processes of exploitation and abuse.

Or we can accept the responsibilities that accompany our position in the global order and use our economic and political might in pursuit of justice for the world's most vulnerable citizens.Douglas Savage is assistant director of the Institute of World Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.



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