The sordid state of underage sex tourism in the Caribbean

In the travel brochures for the Dominican Republic there are blue skies, palm trees and sandy beaches – it’s no wonder it attracts 6.1 million tourists each year. But barely concealed under the blissful facade is the antithesis of the Caribbean vacation cliché: a thriving underage sex trade.

In an “SBS Dateline” investigation, “Evil in Paradise” airing on Tuesday night in Australia, it’s clear that this seedy side of the Dominican Republic is attracting tourists in record numbers and the tiny island nation is getting a reputation as a popular destination for those who wish to have sex with children. “SBS Dateline” is an investigative news show similar to “60 Minutes” or “48 Hours” in the United States.

In the Dominican Republic’s capital of Santo Domingo, 17-year old Candy says she’s been selling sex since she was 14.

“[My clients] are mostly tourists. They pay me good money because they like a body like mine. I tell them [about my age] because often telling the truth gets more money”, she reveals.

Poverty stricken, Candy lives in a small room with her baby boy in a house she shares with her brother, sister, and her two children. She pays her way through life with regular customers who fly in from Europe.

“I work a lot. One week I worked four or five times a day. I spend the money on the kids and the house,” she says.

In a place where it is legal to sell sex on the streets, many young girls like Candy think they’ve found a lucrative payday in trading their youthful bodies for an income. In fact, according to the International Justice Mission, one in four people offering sex on the street are thought to be children.

Journalist Krishnan Guru-Murthy traveled to the country to interview some of these young women for the story. After talking with some teenage sex workers he concluded the people who solicit them know they are minors.

“Their faces look so young,” Guru-Murthy says. Adding, “You couldn’t possibly mistake them for grownups and any man who wants to pay them for sex is a child abuser.”

Boys are being abused by sex tourists too

But it’s not just girls being lured into the prostitution trap. According to the report, sex tourists, those mostly coming from Europe and North America, are also interested in living out their young boy fantasies and target the poorer children, ones they encounter on the beach selling souvenirs and trinkets.

“They want to try a Dominican boy, a young boy,” says Supiro, a local man who has worked as a sex worker since he was a child and now helps children involved in the sex trade. “In their country, they can’t do that. They can live out their fantasy here.”

Poverty and a lack of law enforcement is blamed for the flourishing black market industry.

An anonymous tourist told Dateline, “The cops, they are rotten. It’s a poor country. People need to eat. The tourists bring the chica (female sex workers) to lunch, to have a good meal. They’re happy. You know how much they can make a day? If you stop sex here, it will be empty.”

As the program discovers, for many young people in Santo Domingo, sex work isn’t a choice, it’s a matter of survival.

Candy tells the reporter her entire family relies on her income, saying, “My son needs [diapers] and I don’t have money, I can’t relax until I get the money.”

Is there any hope?

One woman is offering thousands of underage sex workers a chance to escape what they think is their only path in life.

Xiamara, a school teacher, is volunteering her time to educate young girls who work on the street in a bid to get them out of the dangerous world of abuse and into school. “We have a project for girls who wish to change direction in their lives,” Xiamara tells the program.

Thankfully, efforts like this may not be in vain.

Candy told reporters she’s started attending school again with a hope of getting out of prostitution: “Thank God I’m studying now. When I finish I want to work in a call center.”

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