This week's international conference on the commercial sexual exploitation of children is an accomplishment in its own right. Never before have governments and activists gathered to discuss the issue and what they should do about it.
But the opening of the so-called World Congress, being held in Stockholm from Aug. 27 to 31, carried little sense of satisfaction. Recent events in Belgium - where 10 people have so far been charged with crimes related to the abduction, sexual abuse, and murder of young girls - have demonstrated the severity of the problem.
"The people of the world, not least those living in Europe, are today horrified and shocked by the most recent example ... the ghastly crimes that lately have been revealed" in Belgium, Prime Minister Goran Persson of Sweden told about 1,000 delegates from 130 countries.
At the same time, the copious media coverage of the Belgian situation is helping to serve one of the major aims of the advocates and officials gathered in Sweden. In the words of Carol Bellamy, the executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF): "We must shine light on the problem."
The conference, primarily organized by UNICEF, the Swedish government, and a Bangkok-based advocacy group called End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT), is part of a rising level of public and governmental awareness of the sexual exploitation of young people. Some two-dozen governments, including Canada and Germany but not the United States, are represented in Stockholm by cabinet members.
Ms. Bellamy's organization calculates that in Asia alone, 1 million children a year are forced, deceived, or lured into sexual exploitation. Other estimates suggest that hundreds of thousands of children in other parts of the world are also affected.
The statistics cited in discussions of the sexual exploitation of children are rough estimates at best, but many advocates say the numbers are rising. The criminal organizations that profit from the child sex trade seem to be expanding their operations, as evidenced by increasing numbers of women and children being "trafficked" from place to place for sexual exploitation. The fear of AIDS is also increasing the demand for child prostitutes, since men in many countries mistakenly believe that sex with a young prostitute is less likely to lead to infection.
Conference organizers say they hope to broaden cooperation between public officials - such as police officers - and members of nongovernmental organizations concerned with children's issues. Government delegations are also expected to sign documents pledging new efforts to keep children from being drawn into sexual exploitation and to help those who are already involved.
The commercial sexual exploitation of children is a complex phenomenon. The most notorious manifestations of the problem are the activities of pedophiles, adults who have a sexual desire for children.
But child advocates caution that pedophiles are not the primary sexual abusers of children; most "exploiters" are brothel patrons who want a young partner or those who don't care how old their partner is. "In the big scheme of things, the pedophile market is only a small part of the child sex trade," says Christine Beddoe, a spokeswoman for ECPAT.
Similarly, the role of the "sex tourist" is overemphasized, Ms. Beddoe and other analysts say. Most sexual exploiters of children are men of their own nationality.
In many developing countries, children are sent into the sex industry to earn money, since prostitution, in the short term, tends to be more lucrative than just about any other type of labor. And all over the world, children who live on the streets often turn to prostitution or are lured into sexual exploitation as a way to survive.
There are other economic factors as well. Ron O'Grady, the international coordinator of ECPAT, yesterday decried the trend toward economic globalization. "When global values are determined by television and commercial market forces, children and young women end up becoming commodities to be bought and sold," he said at the meeting.
But some experts say that economics is overemphasized as a cause of child sexual exploitation, noting that large numbers of poor people never send their children into the sex industry. These activists want to focus on the role that criminal organizations play in drawing children into prostitution and on the social values that allow child sexual exploitation to exist in the first place.
UNICEF director Bellamy noted that children who are sexually abused in the home are more likely to end up in prostitution. "If we want to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children we must combat it in the private as well as in the public sphere," she said, drawing spontaneous applause from delegates.
One of the most important tasks facing the Stockholm delegates is figuring out what they are talking about. There is some disagreement, for instance, on what a child is. The United Nation's Convention on the Rights of the Child says it is a person under 18, except where the age of legal adulthood is lower. Some countries place the age of sexual consent at 14.
The nature of exploitation ranges from the use of children in pornography, to the prostitution of young girls in brothels, to the seduction of local children for money at certain resorts around the world.
Swedish Premier Persson urged the delegates to "reach a common definition of the scope of the problem." Then, he added, "we must go from words to deeds."
In turning promises into action, the Stockholm delegates may have an advantage over those who have attended some of the UN's recent conferences on global issues. The World Congress is an unusual collaborative effort between a private advocacy group (ECPAT), a government (Sweden), and a multilateral organization (UNICEF).
Perhaps as a result, there seems to be less controversy over the documents that this Congress will produce - a declaration and an "agenda for action."
Instead, there is great emphasis on the sharing of technical information - such as investigation techniques, legal reforms, and research - between government representatives and those from private groups. That leaves less time for the speeches and political maneuvering of individual nations.