The sexual exploitation of children trafficked internally from Madagascar's poverty-stricken rural areas to tourist hotspots appears to be widespread in the island country, according to new reports.
A study by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in two coastal cities - Toamasina in the east and Nosy Be in the northwest - found that between 30 percent and 50 percent of female commercial sex workers were aged under 18. The UN agency also recorded anecdotal information indicating that some traffickers could be recruiting rural children for domestic work in urban areas.
Promises of education by urban dwellers are often used to induce poverty-stricken rural parents to part with their children. Casimira Benge, head of UNICEF's Governance for Child Rights section in Madagascar, recounted the case of a 12-year-old rescued from a house in the northern town of Antsiranana after a neighbour complained that the girl was regularly being beaten.
"Through interviews with the child we learnt that her parents, who lived in a village 90km outside the town, had been tricked into giving up their child, after the town dwellers told them they wanted to help them bring their daughter up, when they actually only wanted to use her as a domestic servant."
Traffickers are suspected of supplying rural children for forced mining, domestic servitude, sex work, and as forced labour for travelling fruit vendors, according to a US government report by the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, released this month.
Children were reportedly being trafficked to work in the sex trade with the complicity of family members, taxi and rickshaw drivers, friends, tour guides and hotel workers, the US report said.
The UNICEF study said children were vulnerable to traffickers because of poverty, deep-rooted practices of gender discrimination, the weak enforcement of laws, and attitudes that held early sexual activity morally acceptable.
Most girls interviewed in the Toamasina and Nosy Be studies had their first sexual experience at the age of 14. UNICEF's Benge pointed out that girls could get married legally from the age of 14, but "the eligibility age is being revised this year and will be extended to 18 years".
The US government noted that "whether because of corruption, often rooted in economic hardship, pressure from the local community, or fear of an international incident, local police and magistrates in tourist areas often hesitated to prosecute foreign paedophiles; officials reported significant pressure from parents, who used profits from their children's sexual exploitation to support the family".
At least two cases of paedophilia were reported last year, according to the US report: in Nosy Be, two French sex tourists charged with statutory rape of children were subsequently convicted and deported; in late 2006, a Swiss tourist was sentenced to five years in prison for paedophilia.
According to UNICEF, about seven out of 10 Malagasy live in poverty, which is aggravated by high population growth - three percent - and frequent natural disasters: the country has been hit by some 30 cyclones in the last three decades, often diverting scarce development resources.
Madagascar's laws do not prohibit trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation, but "the law is also being revised this year", said Benge. "The Ministry of Justice is drafting legislation to protect children from sexual exploitation, which will also penalise those found guilty. The ministry will also enforce laws to prevent child labour, including prostitution, domestic slavery, and forced labour."
UNICEF has called for mandatory reporting of incidents involving missing or exploited children, and an intense media campaign to create greater awareness of the issue.