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SOUTH PACIFIC: Poverty Breeds Child Labour and Sex Tourism

Shailendra Singh

SUVA, Jun 18 2008 (IPS) - Beyond the fabulous palm-fringed beaches and cascading waterfalls of the islands of the Pacific is a sordid reality – child labour and commercial sexual exploitation of children.

Lack of reliable data makes it difficult to assess the magnitude of the problem, but rough estimates by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) suggest that with growing poverty child workers make up an estimated 19 percent of the labour force in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and 14 percent in the Solomon Islands.

A recent Asian Development Bank (ADB) report has predicted that an additional 5 percent of people in the Pacific – or some 50,000 people – would slip into poverty because of high oil and food prices.

According to economist and former Fiji government minister, Ganesh Chand, the prevalence of child labour has increased in the region because of social problems triggered by poverty.

With education not free in Fiji, rising costs were forcing children out of school and into the ranks of the workforce in order to supplement family incomes, Chand told participants at a seminar to mark the International Day Against Child Labour in Suva. Chand appealed to schools to “cut costs and increase efficiency”.

Sex tourists in the South Pacific are also preying upon children. A report by the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Pacific – based on studies in 2004 and 2005 in Fiji, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu – said that in each country child prostitution, child pornography, and child sex tourism and trafficking occurred.

The report said that children in the South Pacific were at “high risk” of being traded for sex by family members and friends because of poverty.

A Pacific regional workshop on poverty recently discussed that in Port Moresby and Lae child prostitution was increasing as social and economic problems increased in Papua New Guinea.

Research findings tabled at the workshop indicated that one third of the sex workers in some areas were children aged between 13 and 19, although children as young as 11 were also found to be working in the sex industry.

Similarly, the Solomon Islands conference on child protection heard that the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the country was beyond dispute. Furthermore, there were increasing numbers of street children and sex workers in Honiara, with over 100 girls under the age of 15 involved in the sex industry.

Researchers and social workers had also been in contact with 30 boys under the age of 15 involved in prostitution in Honiara.

A report by the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement and the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre, titled ‘The Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination and Violence against the Girl Child’, concluded that large numbers of girls were engaged in child labour, including commercial sexual exploitation of girls.

Gabriela Koheler Raue, the head of the Social Section with the European Commission for the Pacific, announced 2 million dollars in funding assistance for Fiji, focused on education.

This is under a partnership protocol for TACKLE, the acronym for Tackling Child Labour through Education. TACKLE was designed to address child labour in 11 countries across Africa, Caribbean and the Pacific, with Fiji and PNG being the two Pacific Island countries.

The project is to be implemented over the next 48 months by the ILO. It will also involve national authorities, agencies, the civil society and social partners.

“Child labour is today still a real and pressing issue to be tackled by many countries globally in co-operation and partnership,” Raue said at the seminar in Suva. “Many children still miss out on school because they have to support their families and contribute to the household income by offering their labour on the market, often under harsh conditions.”

The Netherlands, meanwhile, has allocated 2.5 million dollars for the elimination of child labour in PNG. The funding is part of a 36-month programme that also covers Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

According to Werner Blenk, ILO’s director for the Pacific, “campaigning against child labour is really a campaign for proper education. We need a situation where children go to school, get proper qualifications, join the job market and lead healthy lives. We cannot have generation after generation of children working.”

The ILO estimates that 246 million children worldwide aged between 5 and 17 years are engaged in labour. More than two-thirds of these children – a figure that corresponds to 180 million – are exploited in the worst forms of child labour.

Blenk describes it as a vicious cycle. “Poverty breeds child labour but it’s also the other way around: children in child labour are not well trained, and they become physically and psychologically exhausted before they are mature. So how can they contribute to national wealth and productivity?”

“Breaking this vicious cycle is the foremost challenge,” he added.

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