December 3, 2012 | Violence Against Women

The Youngest Victims: Latin America’s Sex Slaves

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By Ashley Bush

Pineapples, bananas, salmon, coffee –add to that list another booming export from Latin America:  women and girls, some as young as seven, trafficked against their will to foreign countries (including the U.S.) and forced into prostitution, pornography and stripping. It’s a lucrative business; according to the International Organization for Migration, sex trafficking is now a $1.3 billion–a-year industry in Latin America.

And it’s not just a matter of out-go. Central and South America have become hot destinations for sex tourism—trips often disguised as “fishing tours” and offering underage prostitutes.  “We’re seeing sex tourism as a big issue in Brazil,” says Lauren Hersh, New York office director of the human rights organization Equality Now. According to a recent UNICEF report, up to a quarter of a million Brazilian children are trapped in the sex trade and some experts believe Brazil could soon overtake Thailand as the number one stop for illicit-sex vacations.

Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia and Argentina, too, all have sex trafficking problems; in fact the region as a whole serves as a conduit for sex slaves and is a major source of people trafficked to the U.S. each year. 

“There is an increase in trafficking stemming from South America, moving through Central America through Mexico, and then making its way into the U.S.,” says Norma Ramos, executive director of The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. “They use the same routes as the drug traffickers.”

A lack of alternatives

Sex trafficking has become such a top-of-mind challenge for the region that the Women in the World summit, to be held in Sao Paulo on December 4, will feature two panels on the topic. (See the full summit agenda here.)

But Latin America is also the home to the solutions, and the first step is to diagnose why this is happening. “It all has to do with the status of women,” says Ramos. “Guatemala, for instance, has high levels of poverty, inequality of women and high levels of government corruption. This is a potent mixture which produces high levels of sex trafficking. The lower the status of women and girls, there will be a corresponding increase in all forms of violence against women.”

It’s a self-perpetuating problem, notes Honduras legislator Rosa Adelinda Pavon. Girls forced into the sex trade at an early age know nothing else, she says. Legitimate job opportunities are few, and many young women remain in the business even if they are granted their freedom. “We punish but do not rehabilitate,” Pavon has said. “We preach and threaten and castigate but we fail to motivate, educate, and inspire.”

Indeed, the system sometimes seems stacked against these girls. In Honduras, said a judge who requested anonymity, “if the victim is older than 12, if he or she refuses to file a complaint and if the parents clearly profit from their child’s commerce, we tend to look the other way.” To the court, these decisions are considered ‘private matters’ for the families involved.

Rescuing kids from brothels: Casa Alianza 

So what is the answer to this vicious cycle? Empower girls at a young age, say experts, and provide realistic employment alternatives for older ones.

Casa Alianza, a non-profit that works with the US-based Covenant House, operates in Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Nicaragua. The goal: to help children and teens at high risk for sexual exploitation.

Homeless kids living on the street are particularly vulnerable; that’s why Casa Alianza gives them  a safe place to sleep, hot meals, psychological counseling and classes in everything from their ABC’s to computer literacy. 

And if the youth don’t come to Casa Alianza, Casa Alianza will go to the youth. Volunteers from the group have been known to enter brothels with police escorts in order to rescue girls from sexual servitude.

To learn more about Casa Alianza, and to donate to their work, click here.

Ashley Bush is a writer for Women in the World Foundation. She is an assistant writing aid to President Spar of Barnard College, and the co-creator of the webseries Route by Route.