KASAMA Vol. 12 No. 4 / October–November–December 1998 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Ofelia Calcetas–Santos

Ofelia Calcetas–Santos, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Prevention of the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution, and Child Pornography, was in Brisbane recently. On September 29, she spoke at Justice Place with an audience of Indigenous Australians, Filipinos and other non–Indigenous women and men active in community groups and NGOs from the church sector, labour, education, and social welfare. The discussion was challenging as it acknowledged common concerns for social justice while appreciating the variance in our analysis and practice.

Dee Hunt introduced our guest: Ofelia’s office is in the United Nations Centre for Human Rights in New York City. The UN has created a number of Rapporteur positions: some report on specific countries, while other positions, such as Ofelia’s, have been created to address specific topics which the UN believes need special attention on a global scale. This is Ofelia’s second three–year term in this post.

Ofelia’s home is in the Philippines. She is a lawyer, a graduate of the University of the Philippines. She also lectures on family law and the role of the judiciary. Ofelia is currently president of the Foundation for the Advancement of the Interests and Rights of the Child, a Philippine NGO that focuses on the protection of children in the justice system.

Ofelia is in Brisbane at this time to give a keynote speech at the Second National Conference on Children, Young People and Domestic Violence – Everybody’s Business. A major aim of the conference is to examine the interface between child abuse and domestic violence. I’d like to thank the Conference Organising Committee and the Domestic Violence Resource Centre for sharing Ofelia’s itinerary with us.

I’d also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this country and give thanks for their caring stewardship of this beautiful land.

Welcome Ofelia. I have this subjective feeling that during the past three years of your first term in this position of Special Rapporteur there has been a lot of positive development to open up the issue of child abuse for discussion globally. Have all governments signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child?

Ofelia: All governments have signed but two have still to ratify. The Solomon Islands and the U.S.A. – two countries on opposite sides of the economic spectrum – have not yet ratified. But, the significant thing we have achieved is the convention itself which ultimately recognises that children also have human rights, and this has been stated in an international treaty. It is the fastest–in–history international document to have gained so much ratification in such a short time; a worldwide recognition that it’s time we paid attention to our children.

Dee: How well does Australia respond to the concerns of your Office? Does it report to the UN about the situation of children here?

Ofelia: All countries are pretty much on the same level, there are some differences of degree, but by and large, everybody is just starting to get over the stage of denial.

My mandate does not deal with a very pretty topic. It deals with the most marginalised children in society who are also being bought and sold. I deal with children specifically who are in prostitution. From my perception, there is no such thing as ‘voluntariness’ for children to be in prostitution — circumstances have given them no option but to go into prostitution and pornography.

I would also like to acknowledge and say "thank you" to the men who have taken time to be with us this afternoon. I think it’s very significant to recognise that children are not just women’s business. A lot of marginalisation in respect of children occurs in the home … women can be abusers also and therefore the protection of children should be the concern of both men and women.

Dee: Is paedophilia a local problem or is it brought into countries along with sex tourism?

Ofelia: The media focuses attention regarding paedophilia on foreigners, but I don’t think that is the whole truth. In most countries there are just as many locals who abuse their children as there are foreigners. However, the foreigners do make the children very attractive offers. If the clientele is strictly local, children are not usually the focus of attention, it’s the women who are available. But foreigners come expressing preference for children over adults and are willing to pay more for children. This makes the children the subject of greater exploitation. The hunt now is for younger and younger children and probably that is why a lot of blame is placed at the doorstep of tourism for this.

Dee: Are you saying there are links between adult and child prostitution and they are not separate issues?

Ofelia: They can be; it depends upon what you want to make out of it. Adult and child prostitution are definitely linked if only for the fact that most children of mothers who are prostitutes also end up in prostitution. They have nowhere else to go; they know no other life. So, usually for those women who are prostitutes, who do not get to abort their children and are not successful in getting out of the field while raising their children, it’s pretty much a reasonable thing to conclude that the children will also be in prostitution.

And, when I speak of prostitution, it’s not a gender related issue because boys are getting to be as much in prostitution as girls. Unhappily, that’s one field where there seems to be very much progress in equality of the sexes.

Some of you presumably are with women’s groups. I just came from Laos where I had my country visit for a period of six days. One of the things I advocated there with a women’s union, is that children should be protected as children, not simply because they are girl children. My point in questioning some of the militant feminist groups is that they are preoccupied with girls only as females (not as children) ... let us look at it in terms of vulnerability ... there is very little said about boys … in that respect you could say that boys are a little bit more marginalised.

In Laos, very often the boys are approached directly, lured with baits of free drugs, good times, alcohol, ‘chicks’. But for girls there is a different modus operandi – the parents are approached. They are told, "Somebody is looking for a maid," or "A big mall is opening up in Bangkok and it needs 500 salesladies." One of the usual ways of approaching Asian children is through labour, through promised jobs.

Dee: Are there differences from country to country or commonalities in the way children are sexually exploited?

Ofelia: There are views of some as being receiving countries; others as sending countries – the seller and the buyer – and there is the flawed view that third world countries in Asia are the supplying countries and the rich countries of the West are the buying market. But, even that is not as true as it was before.

A couple of years ago they discovered that even in Belgium children are being abused both physically and sexually, and might be sold into the market. If it is happening in Belgium, then we should not be surprised that it is happening all over the world. One of the things I have noticed is there are children getting into prostitution everywhere.

Dee: So, you think that poverty is not the major factor.

Ofelia: No. In the Philippines we are now about 70 million and we are a very young population … about 20 million are children, and UNICEF estimates that about 60,000 Filipino children are in prostitution. ... For a country as poor as the Philippines, if poverty is the only factor, then you could probably say that at least 10 million should be in prostitution. But, as that is not so, it cannot be just poverty. There must be some other factors that come into play as to why some kids are more vulnerable and more tempted to go into it than others.

Dee: What other factors?

Ofelia: Family. The best safety net for a child is the family. Whether it is a single–parent family, or a whole and complete family, or an extended family … the way they are raised, the values imparted as they are growing up, the attitudes toward other people, would be a very good preventive measure.

Ann: While I understand the need in many instances for children to be economically involved for the benefit of the family, I do believe that child labour is a major issue.

Ofelia: Generally, under international instruments, prostitution and pornography are included in the broader context of labour. …Because of the reality on the ground, there are some forms of labour which may be permissible for children; it depends on their age, their ability, or the nature of the work. But, there is no form of prostitution or pornography that will ever be acceptable for children. Maybe vending can be considered by some as permissible, but the dangers are the hours of work and exposure. The parent who is not aware thinks that the worse that can happen is that somebody will grab the earnings of the child. But, it can happen that the child is initiated into another trade.

Bob: About exploitation and prostitution becoming the family trade: is there any alternative, is there a choice?

Ofelia: I have seen children who under normal circumstances should be the least threatened. The greater number of children in prostitution are not the children of prostitutes. They are from a cross–section of society. But, if they come from a family with a solid economic background, educated, or whatever are the normally ideal conditions, and still they end up in prostitution — I would say there must be something dysfunctional in the family …

Another thing is abuse within the family, any kind of abuse, but primarily sexual abuse — incest.

One child told me, and she is from the upper income bracket, ... that before she became a child in prostitution, she became a street child, she ran away from home. She said, "Prostitution is a step up for me. Nobody was paying me for it at home, at least out in the streets I am getting paid."

Joan: If I had to centre my attention somewhere, it would be on women caught in the poverty trap.

Ofelia: I have absolutely no quarrel with you there. I think that is a truism, a reality that we all have to accept. But, poverty should not be used as an excuse as to why children are in prostitution. There are families who amply protect their children even if they are in the direst poverty level.

It’s not a problem that has one solution. The whole range of discrimination based on gender, race and age, comes into it. … But, boys have to be addressed too. The abused girl child potentially grows up within the cycle of abuse to be an adult victim. The boy who is abused as a child, chances are will be the abuser as an adult. Therefore, if you protect the boys and raise them with proper values, in fact you are protecting the women from this boy when he grows up.

Kathleen: Some recent research says that children need at least four significant adults, other than their parents, in their lives.

Ofelia: Absolutely, I don’t think we need a study to establish that. If there is any single factor which I would credit, it is to the extended family system ...and the community which definitely has a role to play.

Ann: What are the more effective inter–governmental actions being taken to address the whole issue?

Ofelia: It depends on the government, the country and the problem. Each locality has its own particular set of problems. This is what I keep telling the NGO’s: in this particular case, look at the smaller picture.

Ann: Are effective measures being undertaken in the tourist market?

Ofelia: Issues are being addressed by bi–lateral or multi–lateral arrangements, especially between countries which share borders … a lot already have extra–territorial jurisdiction legislation in place.

Dee: ECPAT’s branch in Melbourne will provide information about Australia’s Child Sex Tourism law. ECPAT would like to see this information being provided by the airlines in the form of an in–flight video, but it seems that even the Australian carriers are resisting this effort.

Ofelia: Some countries have adopted the idea that every tourism poster should carry a message to make the place child friendly. Very simple messages like, "You are a welcome guest but please do not abuse our children." … It costs nothing, that’s why I say: think small, there are so many things that can be done without asking for millions in funds.

Ann: There is a hidden pool of labour amongst outworkers who make clothes, not in factories but in their homes. Many are migrants and all the family, including the children, work on the machines. The Fair Wear Campaign promotes Australian companies that sign a statement saying their clothes are not produced by exploited labour; and so the consumer can make an informed choice in the market.

Ofelia: Even that is not as simple as it sounds. The international community has learned from the Bangladeshi experience of banning kids from the carpet industry … without giving them any alternative where they will get their food. That is a good objective but it has to be coupled with a substitute resource.

…The answer is not simply banning children from labour. It’s more complicated than that because, under some situations, banning children from labour may mean deprivation.

On an ideal level, I agree with you that if government has resources, if religious groups are active and the structure is there for NGOs, then the absolute goal would be protection of children from being drawn into labour. I have no quarrel with the fact that they should be excluded from labour. That is the ideal we are all trying to work for.

Bob: Things of a similar nature are happening right here in this country. Sometimes they’re hidden in places like Australia, although not to the same magnitude as in some Southeast Asian countries.

I have visited the Philippines and I saw children on the streets selling all sorts of things trying to make money for the family. I’ve also been to PREDA in Olongapo and I saw the evidence of the ‘friendly occupation’ by the United States and the impact that had upon the lives of young people encouraging their prostitution.

We mustn’t lose sight of the issue – the rights of children to grow up to be citizens and take their role as leaders and make decisions in the years to come. We have responsibilities to afford that right to children [despite] complexities.

It’s a matter of where we direct our energy. I’ll be at the opening of the conference tomorrow and I’ve been reading a lot of material. I attended the First Asia Pacific Conference on Children’s Rights in 1997 in Brisbane and I’d like to know what has flowed on from that conference to protect the rights of children.

I’m an Aboriginal person and we are careful with our children on the island [Stradbroke Is.] so that they grow up to be good citizens. We are especially careful that our young men do not get into trouble, or break the law and go into prisons. …As you have said, men are equally sensitive as women... Where Aboriginal men have been stripped of their role as protectors and guardians of our communities, it makes for a sad situation if they are in and out of jail at times. We need to make sure they develop to their full potential.

We should bang on the doors of the United Nations to make wise decisions… to use the money to assist the children and the disadvantaged throughout the world. Forums like this are always useful to hear the viewpoint of others and visitors like yourself, who come from overseas. We can learn from the experience of the position you hold.

For too long we have had a male dominated society ... we need to create and maintain a balanced society. We all have responsibility to look after children universally — to ensure they are able to reach their full potential and make their contribution, so I’m pleased to see you here.

The text above: are edited extracts from a forum held on September 29, 1998 at Justice Place in Brisbane.