Child Prostitution A Way Of Life In Peru

The Republic of Peru is located in W South America and is bordered by the Pacific Ocean (W), by Ecuador and Colombia (N), by Brazil and Bolivia (E), and by Chile (S). Lima is its capital and largest city. Unemployment is high and poverty reduction strategies have not had sustainable results. Children continue to be the most vulnerable and unprotected citizens. Of the 3.8 million people living in extreme poverty, 2.1 million are children, with more than 60% of the under-18 population living below the poverty line.

In the evening, the riverfront promenade in this colorful city in the heart of the Peruvian jungle comes to life as local residents and tourists stroll or sip fruit juice at sidewalk cafes and street vendors sell everything from cigarettes to fortune-telling sessions.

No one takes a second glance when a foreign-looking man who appears to be in his 50s strolls by, arm in arm, with a teenage girl.

Human rights workers and children's advocates say the sight is not uncommon and that apathy toward it is one of the reasons why child prostitution is on the rise in this tropical city of half a million people.

Although a law passed two years ago makes it illegal to solicit sex with a minor, "authorities aren't interested in following up," said Rita Ruck, who provides legal assistance in the human rights office of the Apostolic Vicariate of Iquitos.

The problem is complicated and is related to both local culture and poverty. Victoria Huerta, a psychologist at La Restinga, a local nonprofit organization that works with at-risk children, said that many girls are lured into prostitution by a family member -- sometimes even a parent -- or a neighbor with the promise of quick cash.

"There's always an adult who encourages them," said Huerta, who estimates that more than 1,000 minors in Iquitos are involved in prostitution.

Ruck estimates that about half of the 600 male inmates in the Iquitos prison, which was built to house 300, were arrested on charges of rape of a minor under age 14.

Part of the problem is a social attitude that views sex with adolescent girls as normal, said Luis Gonzalez-Polar Zuzunada, president of La Restinga.

"It's not seen as a crime," he said. "People think that's the way it is. Here, anyone is a potential client."

Another factor is economic. While about half of the overall Peruvian population lives in poverty, that figure is 66 percent in Loreto, the department of which Iquitos is the capital. More than 40 percent of those people live on less than a dollar a day.

With its scenic location -- surrounded by rain forest at the confluence of several rivers that flow into the mighty Amazon -- Iquitos is a popular tourist destination. While there have been reports of foreign tourists luring children for sex or pornography, Ruck and the staff at La Restinga said most people who solicit sex with minors are local residents.

"Tourism gives (people) the possibility of earning more money," said Father Miguel Fuentes, a Spanish Augustinian missionary priest working in Iquitos. Nevertheless, he said, "Tourism reinforces the problem."

Both the tourist industry and the city's explosive growth, as people have moved to the urban area from rural villages in search of jobs, have created conditions conducive to prostitution like a thriving night life.

Ruck recalls the case of a 13-year-old girl who lived with her grandmother and wanted to earn money to help with the household expenses. A neighbor told her she could earn money as a waitress at a nightclub, but she was actually drawn into prostitution.

"I asked if she wanted to work in the nightclub, and she said, no -- she wanted to baby-sit," Ruck said.

The criminal network that offers children for sex also includes hotel managers and taxi drivers, but they are rarely prosecuted, Huerta said.

"It might help if they made an example of someone by throwing them in jail and closing their hotel," she said.

Once children become involved in prostitution, it is difficult for them to get out. Many were raped by relatives before becoming involved in prostitution, and "it's hard for them to recognize what has happened to them," Huerta said. "They want to (get out), but there is no process that supports them in that."

La Restinga, in a building not far from the main plaza and just a few blocks from the riverside walkway that is a magnet for prostitution, provides a refuge for the children. La Restinga takes its name from the local word for the high ground that remains when floodwaters rise, an image that resonates with youngsters who have grown up with the ebb and flow of the tropical rivers.

The work is not easy, however, because both the family situations that led the girls to get involved in prostitution and the sexual exploitation leave serious psychological scars. Many of the girls are also addicted to drugs, and Huerta said that La Restinga's staff members need specialized training -- or some expert assistance -- in dealing with that combination of problems. Because the city is fairly remote, accessible from the rest of the country only by air or river, such expertise is hard to find.

Many of the children involved in prostitution have dropped out of school -- and some have never been to school, especially if their families have moved to the city from remote villages. La Restinga offers summer school and tutoring to help them get up to their grade level.

This year, the staff also plans to work with school principals and teachers to raise awareness of the problem.

"If you have 500 students, any of them could become victims," Gonzalez-Polar said. "The schools don't understand that."

Father Fuentes said the church also is fighting the problem through "education, at every level we can reach -- education in human rights and in values, education aimed at increasing self-esteem and a sense of identity."

La Restinga is currently working with nearly 50 girls who have been sexually exploited or are at risk of being drawn into prostitution. The girls take part in summer school sessions and art workshops, partly funded by Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops' international relief and development agency. Integrating them into the larger group helps keep the girls from feeling stigmatized, Huerta said.

"When they come here," she added, "they turn into what they are -- children."

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