Nobody knows the depth of the problem, but nation is seen as a hotbed of child pornography, sexual abuse.
Pedophiles roam where they can sexually abuse children with impunity. Unfortunately, Ukraine – with its lax law enforcement, shaky economy and endemic corruption – may provide just the haven they seek.
“It’s very widespread,” said Walid Harfouch, publisher of Kyiv’s Paparazzi magazine and a leading socialite.
The depth of the problem, however, is hard to gauge. From time to time, stories emerge that hint at a strong appetite among adults – including some members of the nation’s political elite -- for sex with children.
One story that got recent publicity involved an investigation into a rumored sexual relationship between a Kyiv city official and a teenage girl younger than 16, the legal age of consent. The case ended after the official publicly denied the accusation, the purported victim withdrew her police testimony and the girl’s father refused to discuss the case.
Politicians at the highest levels have failed to adopt tough laws that require long prison terms for pedophiles, human rights activists say. Victoria Velychko, head of the All-Ukrainian Public Organization for Equal Rights, said the nation’s laws were among the weakest when it came to punishing sexual violence against children.
“When we tried to increase criminal punishment for [sex with] children to a minimum of seven years incarceration, we simply could not push through this draft law,” Velychko said. In 2005, non-governmental organizations drafted a national plan based on the United Nations Convention for Children’s Rights. But it went nowhere in parliament, Velychko said.
Other documented incidents suggest that pedophilia is taking a huge toll on countless numbers of the nation’s children – and, consequently, on the future of Ukraine itself. Internationally, Ukraine has been known for many years as a leading source of child pornography.
A few examples:
The 2008 human rights report by the U.S. State Department, the most recent available, finds that “commercial sexual exploitation of children remained a serious problem. According to domestic and foreign law enforcement officials, a significant portion of Internet child pornography continued to originate from the country.”
There were no reported developments in the November 2007 Europol operation that uncovered a worldwide child sex offender network, including pornographic material produced in a studio in Ukraine, according to the same State Department report. An Italian man was arrested in the case.
“Corruption in the judiciary and police continued to impede the government’s ability to combat trafficking. NGOs asserted that local police and border guards took bribes to ignore trafficking, and judges did so in return for lighter sentences,” according to the State Department. “The low number of prosecutions of officials for trafficking related corruption raised questions about the government’s willingness to take serious disciplinary action, especially against high level officials. Anti-trafficking experts noted that prosecutors were often the weakest link in the fight against trafficking due to their negative stereotypes of victims and their failure to prosecute aggressively.”
If there is any good news, it is that the number of children trafficked abroad for sexual exploitation may not be large.
The International Organization for Migration has tried to quantify the problem, but its numbers are mere estimates. Based on a 2006 survey, the organization estimated that 80 percent of 117,000 Ukrainians trafficked abroad were exploited as cheap labor. If correct, the organization’s estimate means that an average of 1,300 Ukrainian adults and children each year were exploited abroad for sexual and other reasons.
But experts say that most reported cases of pedophilia never get investigated, let alone prosecuted. Even if convicted, pedophiles get up to three years in prison for the first offense and up to five for repeat offenses. By contrast, in Britain, first-time offenders get 14 years.
The criminal code sets the age of consent at 16, but human rights activists say weak enforcement makes Ukraine easy pickings for pedophiles.
The nation’s high poverty rate doesn’t help either. Predators find that paying a child for sex can be much cheaper than paying for an escort. Candy or food can be enough for sexual contact or a homemade porn film. Homeless and poor children are particularly vulnerable.
“In our country there is no notion of child pornography,” said Olha Shved, manager of an international organization for preventing child prostitution. “If [a sexual predator] pays children Hr 100, the law does not consider it coercion. When they’re asked ‘Were you forced or beaten?’ the kids say ‘We were paid for it.’ So, it fails to be a forcible action.”
According to the Interior Ministry, 303 cases of sexual abuse of children were registered in 2008, up from 251 in 2007. There were also 851 crimes related to the import, production and sale of pornography, including child pornography – up from 811 the year before. Last year, officials uncovered 37 human trafficking cases involving children and teenagers.
Shved said every third Ukrainian prostitute is a girl between 12 and 17, most of whom were abused at home first either physically or sexually. Despite frequent police raids, buying a child porn movie is easy.
At the capital’s biggest media market, Petrivka, a DVD salesman at a stall displaying ladies with watermelon-like breasts squats down next to a cardboard box to demonstrate its contents. Asked whether he had something with under-age actors, he said, with his eyes shifting: “Well, it goes for Hr 250. And it depends on what you need.”
Asked what age the children were, he said: “There is stuff with 8- to 12-year-olds, and 12 to 14. The price is the same.” He said the children were from Dnipropetrovsk, Moscow and St. Petersburg.
“For every [United States] dollar invested by those who deal with child pornography, they get between $500 and $1,000 in profit. All they do is buy a camera and hook up to the Internet,” said Shved.
Shved, whose organization fights child prostitution, has a painting by a Kyiv artist purchased on Andriyivskiy Uzviv, a popular tourist spot in Kyiv. The painting depicts a girl dressed in a Soviet pioneer outfit – the youth wing of the Communist Party – with her dress hiked up, exposing white underwear and spread legs.
Shved referred to the case in 2007 in which eight child porn producers started three child modeling agencies in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Simferopol. They selected girls between ages 8 and 16, and signed modeling contracts with their parents. But in reality they were operating a porn studio.
“They were filming with candid cameras in the toilets and changing rooms. Some data suggested there were 500 victims, others up to 1,500. They earned $100,000 per month by putting out CDs and [broadcasting] on the Internet,” she said. “The criminal code envisages three to seven years in prison as punishment for this. Nobody received it.”