There is no such thing as a child prostitute. Any child under the age of 18 is a victim of sexual exploitation. It violates their rights to health, education and a childhood.
HIV specialist for Unicef East Asia and Pacific
Saeng* was forced into prostitution at the age of 14. After falling out with his** parents and running away from home, he found himself on the street with no money. Desperate and too young to understand the risks involved, he ended up in the sex industry, exploited by adults. Bars wouldn’t allow him to work on the premises because he was underage, so he sold sex on the streets.
“I fought with my Dad because I wanted to be a kathoey and he couldn’t understand,” recalls Saeng, who is now 18. The Thai term he uses is colloquial for a range of transgender identities. “I went to stay with a friend who sold sex in the bars around Nana district. I would hook up with foreigners who paid me 500 baht (US$15) for sex. If I got enough customers, I could spend the night in a hotel. Otherwise, I would sleep on the streets. I didn’t know much about HIV.”
Adults who exploited Saeng put him at grave risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Some committed acts of violence against him. Saeng also had a run-in with the police. “Another time a customer was getting money out of a cash point for me,” he says. “The police came up behind me and dragged me away. They arrested three of us. They let the others go for 1,000 baht each, but I had no money. They kept me in jail overnight and released me the next morning.”
How is Unicef helping to prevent children like Saeng from being forced to sell sex?
Unicef is working to prevent young people like Saeng from being forced into prostitution in the first place. We also work to ensure that governments meet their obligations to protect and care for sexually exploited children, including by ensuring access to health care services and information about HIV/AIDS.
Working with partners, Unicef East Asia and Pacific has produced guidance for researchers (pdf) on how to obtain data about at-risk adolescents and young people, while guaranteeing their anonymity. “This is a hidden population,” says Ms. Prabhu. “The first step is getting reliable data about them. We are now working on a guidebook to help youth organizations use and understand data, in the style of a comic book.”
In 2014, Unicef Thailand produced a report (pdf) on young people affected by HIV, which found that Thailand is facing a new rise in sexually transmitted infections, with 70 per cent of all cases occurring in the 15–24 age group. Unicef has used these data to talk to the Government about reducing the age of consent for HIV tests to below 18, providing training for health workers on working with at-risk young people and expanding HIV education in schools. In December 2014, the official guidance on HIV tests in Thailand was changed in line with our recommendation.
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Saeng’s story is not uncommon, and we are working in Thailand and around the world to make sure that children are protected from violence. There are still many children who are victims of violence across the globe.
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Andy Brown is Regional Communication Specialist for Unicef East Asia and Pacific.
*Name has been changed.
**Saeng’s gender assignment at birth was male. Saeng’s gender identity and expression are not fixed, and he speaks using both male and female indicators. As interviews showed his self-identification, including language and choice of clothes, leaned more often towards male, masculine pronouns have been used through this article.