Costa Rica is famed for its lush green landscapes that melt into white sand beaches and sapphire waters. Though this picture of paradise is a successful eco-tourist magnet, this masks the serious rising problem of the child sex trade, with some sources suggesting that Costa Rica will soon become the world’s biggest child sex tourism destination. In the capital of San Jose alone, it is estimated by children’s human rights organisation PANI that as many as 3000 minors are being sexually exploited.
Sexually exploited children are left to face the serious long term consequences of their forced labour. These problems can range from mental scarring leaving the children living in fear and shame, to serious physical illnesses including HIV/AIDS. The greatest tragedy is that all child prostitutes have been forced into the sex trade and that these tourists are taking advantage of already vulnerable children only to make their situation worse.
All over the world children become trapped in the sex trade for a number of reasons. Sadly the case is that many families run out of options to support themselves financially and often resort to pushing their children into prostitution. It is also known that because of being sexually abused in their own homes, many children are forced into the sex trade as they feel they have no other choice. Additionally child prostitution is strongly linked to drug abuse, another problem that is rife in Costa Rica, and many minors view prostitution as a way of feeding their addiction.
Child exploitation is becoming prevalent in Central American destinations such as Costa Rica in particular as adult prostitution is legal. Consequently many visitors from the USA and Europe are here with prime intention to engage in sex tourism. This then can lead to children being exploited due to the widespread, but false, belief that younger people are less likely to be carrying sexually transmitted infections.
Another reason why the child sex trade is on the rise is because of increased awareness of the availability of child prostitutes. This is largely the result of increased use of internet where information on the whereabouts of child prostitutes can easily be found. Sadly there are also many people who work closely with tourists such as hotel staff that will divulge information on the whereabouts of child prostitutes as they will often receive a large commission.
So, how is the Costa Rican government dealing with this problem? Primarily various leaflets and billboards are being produced to discourage tourists’ participation in this illegal trade. The government has also enforced heavy
penalties and extra terrestrial legislation – meaning that tourists can be charged as though they committed the crime in their own country.
However, is this really enough? Though more efforts are being made in the punishment of those who sexually exploit children, more initiatives working on the prevention of child exploitation ought to be implemented alongside these changes in legislation. For example encouraging school attendance would provide protection to the children, whilst giving them hope of building a career rather than turning to prostitution for money. Additionally many trafficked children are unaware of how to protect themselves, so investing in professionals such as teachers who can inform the children of their rights and how they can get help may also alleviate the problem. Such education would also contribute to making the issue more open to discussion, considering that this illegal trade is shrouded in secrecy, in families, communities and in the media this may encourage exploited
children to seek help without any fear of humiliation.
With a $2.2 billion per year tourism industry through marketing the country as a prime destination for eco-tourism, undeniably the Costa Rican government does well to conceal the serious growing human rights violations to children. So perhaps more tourists ought to be made aware of the reality facing many children in what seems like an ideal destination, and maybe think twice about Costa Rica’s reputation as an ethical destination. Could visitors to this country play a bigger role than merely snapping exotic photos of the scampering monkeys and relaxing on the sandy beaches? Considering the importance of tourists to Costa Rica, perhaps we ought to be wary of being obliviously swept off our feet by the exterior beauty of Costa Rica. Now it’s time to raise greater awareness of this problem and considering that many conservation volunteering programmes in Costa Rica are oversubscribed, surely it’s time we gave equal attention to the children of Costa Rica.