Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s main tourist destinations. It also a city in which prostitution is rife. Kum Poon*, 14, sleeps rough in a park near the city’s sex district. He makes some money working for street vendors, but also sells sex to tourists and locals. Adults who exploit Kum Poon for sex violate his rights as a child and put him at grave risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
It wasn’t always this way. In 2001, Kum Poon was born in a hill tribe village outside Chiang Mai. His parents died when he was very young. For a while he was cared for by relatives, but they were too poor to look after him, so they took him to Viengping Children’s Home, where he lived until he was six. It’s a pleasant home on the edge of Chiang Mai, with fresh air, lots of open space and a large, well equipped playground.
“That was the happiest time in my life,” Kum Poon recalls. “I was still young and had no burdens or difficulties in my life. I used to play games, climb trees and draw pictures of flowers. The teachers were kind to me.”
But Kum Poon grew up quickly and was transferred to a home for older boys, where the regime was much harsher. After being forced to eat raw chili and beaten with an iron bar for stealing, he ran away. Eventually he ended up living with other children on the streets of Chiang Mai, where he remains today.
“Now I live in the park with other boys,” he says. “Sometimes we sniff glue. When the weather’s good, I sleep on a marble table in the park. If it rains, we shelter in the market vendors’ storage building. Sometimes, when I have money, I pay 40 Baht (around $1 USD) to spend the night in an Internet cafe.”
In the beginning, Kum Poon earned small change running errands for market traders, but he soon learned that he could get a lot more money by selling sex to adults.
“I meet clients on the streets or in Internet cafes,” he explains. “Once I spent 48 hours in an Internet cafe. Men will poke me on Facebook, or offer me something to eat. They pay between 100 and 500 Baht ($3 to $14) for sex. We go to a hotel, guest house, or the park. Rich clients use condoms, but the poorer ones often don’t.”
Other boys in the area have contracted HIV from adults who use them for sex, but so far Kum Poon remains negative. He was found by outreach workers from Volunteers for Children’s Development Foundation (VCDF), a local NGO which is supported by UNICEF and provides a drop-in centre for street children.
The centre is a lively place in a converted shop house near Chiang Mai’s old town. It’s full of children playing with toys, learning or just sleeping. Some children come with their mothers, others arrive on their own. At the centre, they receive basic health care, counselling services, and learn about HIV.
“I learned about HIV from staff at the Foundation,” Kum Poon says. “They also give out free condoms. I had an HIV test a year ago and my result was negative. I was so happy and relieved because I used to worry about it a lot. I’ve been safer since then, now I insist on using condoms.”
There are no circumstances in which using children for sex is acceptable. According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, there is no such thing as a child prostitute – any child under the age of 18 selling sex is a victim of sexual exploitation. It takes away their childhood, and puts them at risk of HIV.
According to a new report, ‘Adolescents: Under the Radar in the Asia-Pacific AIDS Response’, the region is facing a ‘hidden epidemic’ of HIV among adolescents. Published by the Asia-Pacific Inter-Agency Task Team for Young Key Populations, including UNICEF and UNAIDS, the report shows that although new HIV infections are falling overall, they are rising among at-risk adolescents. There are now around 220,000 adolescents living with HIV in the region.
UNICEF is working with governments throughout the Asia-Pacific region to ensure they meet their obligations to protect adolescents’ health. Those particularly at risk of HIV include gay and bisexual teenagers, those selling sex, injecting drug users, and transgender people. Adolescents with HIV also face stigma and discrimination, which can discourage them from seeking treatment.
In order to tackle this issue, governments need better data on adolescents, strategies for HIV prevention, and adolescent-specific laws and policies. These should include sex education in schools and through social media, information on where to get an HIV test, condom distribution, and HIV testing and treatment services designed for adolescents.
In Thailand, for example, UNICEF has worked with the government to reduce the age of consent for HIV tests to under 18, so that at-risk adolescents can get a test without consent from an adult. The next step is to ensure that health service providers and adolescents themselves know about this change.
“Our HIV work in Thailand is very much focused on adolescents,” says Kuttiparambil Beena, Chief of HIV/AIDS at UNICEF Thailand. “We want to develop HIV testing and treatment as part of adolescent-friendly health services. We’re also supporting VCDF’s work in Chiang Mai to provide counselling for at-risk adolescents, empower them with HIV awareness, and link them up with other health and protection services.”
A new hope
Although Kum Poon is still selling sex, there is hope. A few years ago, 20-year-old Muang* was in the same situation. But then Kru Poj, an outreach worker from VCDF, helped him change his life. After counselling Muang about the risks of HIV, Poj found him a job in a garage. He’s worked there for nearly two years, earning 13,000 Baht ($370 USD) a month plus accommodation, well above Thailand’s minimum wage.
In the evenings, Muang joins the VCDF outreach sessions, where he now helps out as a volunteer. The streets near the sex district are well lit and bustling with tourists, buskers and sex workers. Muang sits with Kru Poj beneath the crumbling ruins of the old city wall, discussing HIV with his younger counterparts.
“I stopped selling sex because I wanted to have a better life,” Muang says. “I love working at the garage. I’ve learned a lot of new skills there. I feel like I have a future again. I’m saving up and one day I would like to start my own business.”
Kum Poon also has dreams, although he’s further from reaching them. “I like playing football in the park,” he says. “My favourite team is Manchester City. When I’m older, I’d like to be a footballer and play for Chiang Mai.”
* Names have been changed to protect identities.
Andy Brown is Regional Communication Specialist for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific