Mon, Aug 13, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Superstition drives child sex trafficking in Peru’s gold rush

By Stephania Corpi  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, MADRE DE DIOS, Peru

When Yaneth was 14 years old, her aunt sent her to work as a waitress in one of the scores of bars along the highway cutting through the Amazon jungle region of Madre de Dios, in the heart of Peru’s illegal gold mining region.

Within weeks, Yaneth, now 15, found a very different reality to the one she had been promised.

Trapped in a bar that doubled as a brothel, she was forced to have sex with miners who flock in their thousands to the vast and remote southern rainforest hoping to strike gold.

“At the bar, I was taught to wear make-up, high heels and dress accordingly,” Yaneth told reporters.

“At first it was just drinking and dancing with the miners, but then it was sex. I was ashamed of myself,” said Yaneth, who was rescued in a police raid and taken to a state-run shelter.

On any day or night, dozens of women and girls can be seen standing outside the ramshackle wooden bars and neon-lit brothels on the dusty streets and riverbanks of mining towns.

Driven by poverty, it is often parents and relatives who sell their children into the sex trade, rights groups say.

Other women and girls from across Peru travel along the Amazon river to reach Madre de Rios on their own accord, in search of jobs and a better life.

Poor, uneducated and unemployed women and girls are vulnerable to recruiters’ false promises of work as cooks, cleaners and waitresses. They are often forced into commercial sex work.

A Peruvian group fighting human trafficking, CHS Alternativo, says there are least 400 bars in Madre de Dios alone where child sexual exploitation takes place, with girls working 13 hours a day.

Yet the true scale of sex trafficking is unknown, as fear and shame prevent victims coming forward to report the crime.

“I try to help people here, but it’s almost impossible, because they don’t know the real name of the abusers, they lie about their age, about what they did in the bars, and more often than not, it’s their family who sold them,” said Carmen Bustos, a Peruvian lawyer who does pro-bono work for abused women and children in Madre de Dios.

Teenage girls and women are also trapped in debt bondage. Once at the mining camps, traffickers tell them they have to pay for transport, food and accommodation.

To pay off their debts, girls are convinced to sell their virginity known as “El Pase,” Bustos said.

Soaring prices in the decade to 2010 sparked a gold rush, and miners poured into jungle boomtowns that sprouted up in Madre de Dios. Organized-crime groups and brothels soon followed.

“The high demand for commercial sex in these towns increases incentives for traffickers to bring in women and girls from various regions in Peru,” the US Department of State’s most recent report on human trafficking said.

Peru, the world’s sixth-biggest gold producer, says it has stepped up efforts to clamp down on illegal mining.

In the past few years, authorities have shut down thousands of illegal gold mining camps, mostly small underground or open-pit mines that were operating without a license.

In the Madre de Dios region, 79 cases of adult and child trafficking were reported from 2014 to 2016, according to official figures.

Peruvian government figures show that 315 child trafficking victims were rescued by police across Peru last year — up from 117 in 2016.

Seven trafficked women were rescued in the latest police operation, a dawn raid last month on bars in Madre de Dios.

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