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Activists say battle against prostitution can be frustrating

March 22, 1997

MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ Not long ago, an anti-prostitution group says, it was harassed by the government for publicizing the plight of children in the Philippines.

Now, Dolores Alforte, head of the Filipino branch of End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism, is on a child protection committee formed last year by President Fidel Ramos. Ramos called the country’s reputation as a center for child prostitution ``a cause for national shame.″

Back when her group formed, ``the government didn’t want to admit that the problem exists,″ Ms. Alforte says.

There are about 60,000 child prostitutes in the Philippines, her group estimates, but the actual number may be higher.

End Child Prostitution started in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1991, and has grown to 20 branches worldwide. The private group does not run homes or medical clinics for children, but refers victims to such care.

The Philippines branch won its first legal victory against a child sex offender last year. The group provided legal assistance for two brothers, ages 4 and 8, who testified against a Briton sentenced to 17 years in prison for abusing the boys.

The Philippines government recently began to emphasize education and greater public awareness of child sexual abuse through radio and television announcements.

While most customers for child prostitution are local people, foreign ``sex tourists″ from wealthy nations have gotten much attention in recent years.

The London-based Coalition on Child Prostitution and Tourism says a dozen countries now have laws aimed at keeping their citizens from traveling to other nations to seek sex with children.

Australia’s 1994 sex tourism law, one of the first to be adopted, carries a penalty of up to 17 years in prison. The federal attorney general’s department describes it as an effective deterrent, even though only a handful of men have been prosecuted, and only two have been imprisoned so far.

But critics in Australia say child sex tours, particularly to neighboring Southeast Asia, continue to be conducted by secret and highly organized pedophile rings.

Roman Von Arx, a Swiss who heads the group Sun for All Children, said Philippine laws are adequate, but authorities or parents of victims often receive bribes from suspects to drop their cases. In others, prosecutors allow bail and the offenders escape, or there is insufficient physical evidence for a conviction.

``I ask myself what I am doing here sometimes. I’m frustrated most of the time,″ said Arx, who works in Manila.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Associated Press reporter Alan Thornhill in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this story.

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