Wednesday October 1, 2003

Colombia cuts help for child prostitutes

BOGOTA — Thousands of abandoned and abused young people who have turned to prostitution in the streets of Colombia's capital may never receive help from child-care workers because of a government cut in funding for outreach programs, activists said.

The state family welfare institute said Tuesday that it was eliminating about $60,000 a year in funds used by the Renacer foundation to locate, assess and refer exploited children. The decision enraged workers who said it halts aid for those who most need it.

"They will be left completely in the hands of the pimps, without any attention," Timothy Ross, a Renacer volunteer, said of the estimated 5,000 children working in prostitution in Bogota.

The government decision was made during a recent review in which a panel decided Renacer failed to meet all the requirements necessary for a contract renewal, said Alexandra Rodriguez, a Bogota-based regional director for the state family institute.

It also came down to insufficient room for new children in homes and treatment centres, Ms. Rodriguez said.

"Reaching out to more youth doesn't work if we don't have the resources they are going to need."

The outreach funds being cut represent more than 20 per cent of the budget of Renacer, the primary group working with underage victims of sexual exploitation in Colombia. The state institute will continue to fund other Renacer programs, but without outreach to identify the most vulnerable children, the rest of the foundation's work is at risk, Mr. Ross said.

"What they've done is cut the funds for the backbone of the whole program," said Mr. Ross, who has worked with Renacer for 10 years. "The hard-core street kids will be the ones most affected."

Most children treated by Renacer are discovered by outreach workers who go to brothels and bars to offer them help. Many of those contacted do not want to go in to the foundation, so the workers often spend months gaining their trust and then bringing the treatment to them.

One 15-year-old girl recently contacted by Renacer has been sold out as a prostitute by her mother since she was 11 years old. The girl, whose name was not released to protect her privacy, has already had several abortions and is addicted to the crack cocaine made locally out of baking powder that she smokes before facing her customers.

The girl's mother does not know that she is receiving treatment from Renacer while at school. The next step is to contact the girl's family, but the future is unclear given the funding cuts, outreach worker Karin Barrios said.

Ms. Barrios is one of four full-time Renacer workers who, as of Wednesday, will no longer be receiving a salary. Funds for transportation to the prostitution sites, outreach leaflets and condoms are also gone.

"This is very painful," the 32-year-old Ms. Barrios said. "This is my life project. We all love what we do."

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Created: October 6, 2003
Last modified: January 17, 2004
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