Tracking the Child Sex Trade in Southeast Asia

New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof's continues to investigate child sex slavery in Southeast Asia. Most sources agree that far more than 1 million underage children are "effectively enslaved."

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SIMON: Since becoming a New York Times Columnist in December of 2001, Nicholas Kristof has tried to draw attention to an issue that is almost overwhelming in numbers and often disregarded: child sex trafficking, which really is a form of slavery. Nicholas Kristof joins us now from our studios in New York City. Thanks very much for being with us.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF (New York Times Columnist): Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Help us get grasped on some of the numbers, just the enormity of this problem.

Mr. KRISTOF: Every estimate is that there are more than a million children who are effectively enslaved. The UN said more than a million in Asia alone. The Lancet, the British medical journal, said that 10 million children were in brothels around the world. And you know for many of them it is absolutely like 19th century slavery, except that they are all dead of AIDS by their late twenties.

SIMON: How can it flourish like that in this day and age?

Mr. KRISTOF: Unlike a lot of problems in developing countries, this is one that has actually gotten worse. And I think it has gotten worse for a few reasons. One is that the collapse of Communism and Socialism, in some of the East Block countries, you know, including those in Asia, like Cambodia, tended to lead to an explosion of markets in which everything was turned into a commodity, including prepubescent flesh. Second, there ended up being much more mobility, so that people were going across borders, you know, from Burma into Thailand, Malaysia, from Cambodia, from Bangladesh into India, and so on. And the third is with the rise of AIDS, customers tended to want young sexual partners who they thought were less likely to infect them. And so the confluence of the all these factors resulted in a real surge in the number of children who are trafficked into brothels.

SIMON: And even when you use a term like partners, that's kind of loaded. You don't mean partners in the sense of equal relationship?

Mr. KRISTOF: Not at all, not at all. And there are many, many cases where you have girls, overwhelmingly girls, not boys, who are kidnapped off the street. You know, maybe they're given candies that turn out to be loaded with drugs and they, you know, end up in a brothel. That kind of thing happens today in the 21st century all the time.

SIMON: And to be sure, drugs aren't always necessary. There are some 12 and 13-year-old girls who are extremely poor and whose families are extremely poor and just see this as a way to be a little less poor.

Mr. KRISTOF: Yes, but I think we sometimes exaggerate the degree to which girls choose. You know, if you want to call it that. Prostitution. I mean that does exist but in India, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia, it is overwhelmingly kids who have been tricked, drugged, kidnapped or sold by their parents, but very, very few end up initially entering prostitution voluntarily.

SIMON: Some of your columns, Mr. Kristof, you've said that people simply turn away from this issue. In your judgment who is paying attention to this issue, who is doing something about it?

Mr. KRISTOF: There has been more attention to this issue. At a time when everything seems politically polarized and its hard to get things done, there has been a coalition forming of both left and right. And it actually tends to lead to extremes of left and right. It tends to be Christian Evangelicals on the right, liberal feminists on the left who have formed a real coalition that is making progress. The State Department has an office on trafficking under a guy called John Miller, Ambassador John Miller, that is doing great work. And in fact it is gaining traction. I was delighted that President Bush mentioned sex trafficking in his State of the Union address. And then there are policy measures that we can take. I think that one of the most affective would be to crack down on the sales of virgins, because that is what drives the market especially in Southeast Asia. And so if we can make it less profitable, then we'll make a real dent on trafficking.

SIMON: A couple of years ago you made people very dramatically aware of some of the issues you've been talking about when you bought a couple of teenage girls for a just a little over $350.

Mr. KRISTOF: Sreenet(ph) and Sreemum(ph), yes.

SIMON: Two years later, could you let know what's happened to them?

Mr. KRISTOF: Sure. And I should say that there's very little that I've ever done in my career that is so unprofessional, in some sense, but you know, it's also something that I have no regrets about at all. Sreemum, unfortunately, turned out to be addicted to methamphetamines and ended up returning to the brothel. She's tried to get out, but that meth addiction has been just too much.

Sreenet was able to restart. She studied haircutting in Phnom Phen and later was able to give me a haircut. Actually her first official professional haircut.

SIMON: Nicholas Kristoff, columnist for the New York Times. Thanks very much.

Mr. KRISTOF: Thank you.

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