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World Congress Sets Goals to End Sexual Exploitation of Children

The real action at global conferences takes place away from the microphones.

Emranul Huq Chowdhury, the head of a private, social-welfare organization in Bangladesh, seized the moment during an official reception here the other night. Amid the bustle, he privately pressed a Bangladeshi Cabinet minister to push for more rigorous laws to protect children from sexual exploitation in their country.

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"We are compelling our government to do something positive," Mr. Chowdhury explained after the minister walked away. Bangladesh and more than 100 other governments represented at the World Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, closing tomorrow in Stockholm, have subjected themselves to global peer pressure.

The meeting has produced high-minded verbiage, as such gatherings inevitably do, but it has also generated a competition among nations to take the lead in tackling a problem that is drawing new global concern. Officials from Thailand, where tens of thousands of children are sexually exploited each year, were proud to announce that their parliament on Wednesday approved new laws designed to punish and prevent child prostitution. Britain took similar satisfaction in promising to enable the prosecution of Britons who sexually abuse children in foreign countries, joining the dozen nations that already have such statutes. Burma, one of several nations that has long denied that its children are sexually exploited, acknowledged it was "not immune" from the problem.

The governments approved a sweeping declaration in which they agreed to allocate more resources to counter child sexual exploitation, expand international cooperation on the issue, and improve their laws. They also promised to formulate specific plans by the end of this decade.

This document and an accompanying "agenda for action" have excited very little of the controversy that usually complicates the passage of international agreements. That is partly because organizers worked hard to generate consensus by circulating drafts well in advance. But the documents are also "cast in comparatively general terms," according to a European official who declined to be quoted by name.

Conference organizers admit that for most of the countries in attendance the level of commitment remains unclear. "We're delighted," says Ron O'Grady, the international coordinator of a Bangkok-based advocacy group called End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT). "But the test of our success will not be clear for a year or two...."

Of course, not all governments chose to attend the congress. "Maybe some countries will implement reforms, but not my country," says Ngo Mawege, who represents a private group in Cameroon called the Christian Family Foundation. Based on her organization's experience in Yaounde, the country's capital, she says the city has at least 1,000 child prostitutes, yet the government declined to send a delegation.

One reason is that the sexual exploitation of children is often not seen as a problem because of traditional attitudes. The other reason, she adds, is that the sexual abusers of children are often men in "high places." "Those who make the decisions," she says - referring to some military and public officials and business leaders - "are responsible for the problem."

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Some delegates have been frustrated that the congress has emphasized legalistic responses to the commercial sexual exploitation of children, rather than exploring the values that underlie the problem. "The point is to get more attention and to get governments to understand the problem," says Saisuree Chutikul, a senior adviser to the Thai government on women's and social issues. But she adds that the discussion didn't go deep enough. "The whole social structure of values needs to be talked about."

And some participants have noted that there have been precious few children at a gathering designed to address their exploitation. "A lot of adults unfortunately really don't want to allocate time to youths," says Mitos Gomez, a 24-year-old who escorted two of the 17 child participants in the conference. "But they're the ones who know the issue ... they live it," adds Ms. Gomez, who works with a New York-based advocacy group called Global Kids.

"Seventeen youths out of 1,000 delegates - that's not representing a youth voice," she says. She notes that the congress's "youth panel" is the last item on the agenda.

Mr. O'Grady says he regrets that children have not had a larger voice, but says that organizers worried that child participants, particularly those who had experienced some form of sexual exploitation, should not be subjected to media scrutiny.

The meeting hasn't generated any broad realizations about the nature of the problem, nor has it unveiled any universal solutions. And the phenomenon is only now receiving the attention that it needs.

Many participants acknowledge that the conference is, in the end, an exercise in increasing the profile of the issue. "This is many times a hidden crime and therefore raising public consciousness becomes critical," says Laurie Robinson, a United States assistant attorney general and the leader of the American delegation.

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