Friday, November 29, 2003

Study by Profamilia in Dominican Republic highlights threats to children

On this Caribbean country's white beaches, teenage and child prostitutes wearing next to nothing troll the resort areas, frolicking near groups of foreign tourists to lure their attention away from the emerald seas. Poorly educated and immersed in poverty, they offer themselves for pennies — a desperate act that activists say is helping spread the AIDS virus in the country.

"I do it for the money," said a lanky 16-year-old boy who gave his name as Eduardo. "I don't need to get tested because I know I'm not sick."

Like dozens of others, he walks the Puerto Plata beachfront, 100 miles northwest of the capital Santo Domingo, shining shoes and occasionally selling himself to the highest bidder.

At least 35,000 Dominican youths under 19 have turned to prostitution for survival, and as many as 15 percent of them could be HIV positive, according to Mais, a Dominican non-governmental organization working to end child prostitution in the Spanish-speaking country.

The Dominican government estimates that at least 130,000 Dominicans have HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS, and more than 52,000 have died from the disease since 1985. Unlike adult prostitutes who often work at nightclubs and are required to be tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, child prostitutes are largely unregulated.

"I always use a condom, but many don't and I know of many who have (AIDS)," says 17-year-old Jose Luis, who earns between 400 and 500 pesos per hour, about $20-25, working as a prostitute. He supplements his income by feeding chickens at a local farm. He said a friend told him he could earn a lot of money in the resort town of Cabarete, about 25 miles from Puerto Plata. But he now has to share part of his profits with a pimp who leaves him notes at a local hotel informing him of his next trick.

Less than half of child prostitutes use condoms regularly, and only 38 percent have been tested for AIDS, says an October study by Profamilia, a Dominican family planning organization. In July and August 2001, the group surveyed 118 prostitutes between ages 10 and 17 in Puerto Plata and Santo Domingo.

Profamilia and Mais say many parents know their children are prostitutes, but in some cases the families encourage it to ease their crushing poverty. The country has been known for years as a sex tourism destination.

"In some nightclubs one can find brochures with pictures of naked children and phone numbers for taxi drivers that will take them to child prostitutes," said Maria Josefina Paulino of Mais.

Janet, a 17-year-old prostitute who is pregnant with triplets, said she was forced into the trade at 13 when she had a son and couldn't feed him. She has worked in the Puerto Plata beachfront for the last four years.

"I started sneaking out my house to do it," she said. "I left my house when I was 14."

Janet was tested for AIDS a week ago because of her pregnancy, and the results came out negative. "I know AIDS kills because a friend of mine died from that, so I always use a condom," she said.

Her 26-year-old friend Mariluz began prostituting herself when she was 14. When she was 16 she worked in a nightclub where the owners made her use a condom and get tested for HIV.

Social taboos and scant resources for education mean many children don't understand the risks. Some groups say to educate child prostitutes on the use of condoms and the dangers of AIDS would essentially be endorsing the trade.

"The country has a series of weaknesses in protecting its children, including protection against AIDS," says Jaime de la Rosa, joint director of the government AIDS council.

In the meantime, Mais and Profamilia fear the virus will continue to advance without a nationwide education campaign directed at child prostitutes.

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Created: January 22, 2003
Last modified: January 22, 2003
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