Poverty Forcing Madagascan Girls Into Prostitution

Of Madagascar's thousands of sex workers, UNICEF estimates 30-50 percent are under age 18 -- a greater proportion than in Cambodia -- with many driven to the work by economic insecurity. "The majority of them are 15 to 16, but there are some as young as 12," said Valerie Taton, UNICEF's child protection officer for Madagascar.

Most people in the island nation live as subsistence farmers; about 75 percent of the 17 million population live on less than $1 a day. In the past year, Madagascar's inflation has averaged 17 percent, pushing more people into crushing poverty, say economists.

"Prostitution is not an organized business in Madagascar, like in Cambodia or Thailand," Taton said. "What you have is very poor families who encourage the girls to find a rich husband. So they go out to look for a man with money. That's how it starts."

Madagascar's HIV prevalence is comparatively low for the region, but it is increasing from the World Health Organization estimate of 1.1 percent.

Children's rights groups say the country is a destination for sex tourists. The government is initiating an anti-sex tourism campaign targeting international clients. And this month, UNICEF will launch a radio drama to show young girls alternate ways to avoiding poverty. "We want to tell them the reality is not always how they imagine," said Taton. "Often they don't end up marrying a rich man. They get STDs, they get pregnant, some have abortions," she said.