Below Tbilisi’s Rose Revolution Square and its shiny Radisson-Blu Hotel lies a crumbling, urine-dappled, underground labyrinth with bunker-like hideaways blaring Turkish and Middle Eastern dance music. Some allegedly are not just venues for drinks and stripteases. For underage girls who have spent most of their lives on the streets, nightclubs like these signal an opportunity to work as prostitutes, child-welfare workers claim. It’s a problem Georgia is only starting to address.
A lack of data means that nobody knows how many children are sexually exploited in this South-Caucasus country of 4.49 million. Yet child-welfare professionals maintain it is part of a much larger problem of impoverishment that drives children to the streets to escape a deplorable home life.
A 2008 study by Save the Children calculated that a maximum of 1,500 children live on the streets of Georgia’s four major cities (Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi, Rustavi), although World Vision, an international humanitarian organization, estimates the current number at closer to 2,500.
World-Vision-run teams of professionals make contact with “one to two new kids a week,” said Child Welfare Program Manager Maya Mgeliashvili. Ethnic Georgians make up about 40 percent of the total, so-called “Azeri-Kurds” 20 percent, Roma 17 percent and the rest are “unidentified,” she said.
These children’s primary source of income is begging, which nets them about 20 to 50 lari a day ($11-$30), well within Georgia’s average daily wages, according to the National Statistics Office of Georgia. Often, a family member forces them to beg; others may be their families’ only breadwinners.
While the government has pledged to boost jobs, unemployment in Georgia stands at 14.6 percent; unofficial estimates place it far higher. In 2012, the last year for which data is available, average monthly wages amounted to just 712.50 laris ($411.59). Social-welfare programs remain limited.
But as child-beggars get older and lose attributes of cuteness, their earning potential as beggars decreases. By the age of 14, boys typically turn to crime, including theft, while girls often turn to prostitution, social workers say.
“We have three [teenage] girls at our shelter in Rustavi now. They all survived by prostitution in Turkish cafes” in Tbilisi, stated Tamar Sharashidze, youth program manager for the Catholic relief organization, Caritas Georgia.
Children do not openly discuss their backgrounds in prostitution, but social workers like Nino Danelia, a state social worker on a World-Vision-run team that works with street children, claim the connection usually is clear. “They’ll say a friend gave money to them, but we know where they go, what bars they attend,” she said.
Child-welfare workers complain that the police do not react to cases of child prostitution because of a lack of training or an unwillingness to intervene. Child-prostitution remains a taboo-topic for public discussion, and not one yet addressed by the government.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs did not respond to EurasiaNet.org’s repeated requests for comments.
Georgia’s criminal code, however, barely considers child-prostitution. According to Article 171, “involving a minor in prostitution or other sexual perversion” is punishable by 170 days of community service or a maximum of two years in jail.
By comparison, in the European Union, “forcing a child into child prostitution” carries a minimum prison-sentence of ten years. US federal law imposes a minimum sentence of between 10 to 15 years, and a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Part of the problem may be linked to the fact that many Georgians (72 percent of 3,345 respondents in a 2013 UNICEF survey) consider individuals under the age of 18 to be adults. Sixteen is the age of sexual consent.
Local and international NGOs have been lobbying the Georgian government to change the law to protect children more effectively, but they stress that popular attitudes toward child-welfare must change, too. Many Georgians see such matters as more the concern of an individual family than society.
That outlook particularly affects attempts to stop domestic violence, another cause of children living on the streets. The government in 2010 outlined procedures for how to respond to such cases, but obstacles remain, said Eka Javakhishvili, a program manager at the health ministry’s Social Service Agency.
“Social workers need more power to intervene. We cannot take a child away from abusive parents without the permission of the police, but in most cases they demand more evidence,” Javakhishvili elaborated. ”You can’t get evidence of emotional and sexual abuse. Our understanding of what is abuse is different than theirs,” she said of the police.
Javakhishvili expects parliament in September to adopt amendments to clarify the definition of domestic violence.
The most visible sign of the government’s efforts to turn the tide for street-children is a 2012 plan that helped establish daycare centers and mobile teams of social workers, psychologists and peer-educators to work for NGOs to assess the needs of street- children.
But only four such teams, all in the capital, Tbilisi, exist. In 2015, the health ministry expects to approve one team to start to work in the central city of Kutaisi and a second in the popular Black-Sea vacation town of Batumi.
Tbilisi also contains the country’s two daycare centers, facilities that can care for up to 30 street-children at a time, and one transitional center, which helps up to 20 children adapt to life off the street. The only other transitional center is in the nearby town of Rustavi.
While all child welfare professionals agree these are significant improvements and welcome the government’s willingness to amend laws, they assert that the key to getting children off the streets, out of brothels and into schools is to tackle poverty.
“We have to ask ourselves what pushes kids to the streets?” stated Ketevan Melikadze, a social welfare officer at UNICEF. “It is an extreme manifestation of the flaws in our society. [If] there’s no neighbors, family or friends to help, the child just falls through that net and ends up on the street.”
Paul Rimple is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Justyna Mielnikiewicz is a freelance photojournalist also based in Tbilisi.