Costa Rica is known worldwide for its rich rainforests and beautiful beaches. As a result of this scenic beauty, there is an inherent marketability from which Costa Rica benefits, especially in regards to the tourism industry. Education, health and social security are other areas in which Costa Rica has seen positive development. While regionally Costa Rica is viewed as a fairly stable and successful country, it is not without its own set of serious economic and social issues.
Economically speaking, the top 20 percent of the country’s population account for about half of the total national income. The GDP per capita of Costa Rica is just over $10,000. However, about 10 percent of Costa Ricans are living on approximately $1.25 per day. It is clear that there is a significant disparity in terms of wealth distribution. Costa Rica is also a very young country, with roughly 26% of its 4.3 million people under the age of 14.
According to UNICEF estimates, there are upwards of 280,000 children not regularly attending school or enrolled in classes. 93% of children under 12 attend school, compared to only 86% and 78% for 14- and 16-year-olds, respectively. The older a child gets, the likelihood that they will graduate from school decreases by a few percentage points. The combination of these factors indicates why approximately 9% of all children between the ages of 5-14 are working to contribute to their families’ income. The majority of these children are either working in the fields, selling wares on the streets or working from home with family members.
UNICEF estimates that there are 36,000 children living on the streets of Costa Rica. One of the reasons for this high number is because children have either been orphaned or they have left home. In 2010, the National Children’s Hospital treated 2,555 cases of violence and assault toward children. Social attitudes toward corporal punishment in Costa Rica are severely outdated, and it would appear that many children run away from home to escape this abuse. These children in particular are often distressed, hungry and afraid. Because of their desperation, they also are susceptible to being abducted into drug cartels in the local barrios. Being on the streets places children in danger of gang violence, drug trade and sexual abuse.
The child sex industry in particular is a major issue in Costa Rica, as there is a rampant sex tourism industry. The Protection Project estimates that over 5,000 people visit Costa Rica for the sex tourism annually. The majority of these tourists are coming from the United States and Western Europe. Orphaned girls living on the street are the most vulnerable to being lured into underground businesses.
The abuse comes in the form of prostitution, trafficking, and pornography. Child prostitutes can potentially earn hundreds of dollars per day, and trafficking a single child can bring in a profit of $10,000. Costa Rica also has one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in Central America with 0.3% of the population affected, or approximately 10,000 cases. Costa Rican street children are at particular risk.
In 2004, World Vision, an international humanitarian group, received funding from the United States to help end child sex trafficking worldwide. The organization’s strategies included using deterrent messages, law enforcement assistance, and prevention programs. In 2008, UNICEF partnered with the Law on the Right of Children and Adolescents to Discipline Free of Corporal Punishment or Humiliating Treatment. This program seeks to reform social attitudes and provide families with advocacy resources on safe child rearing practices.
Additionally, in 2009 UNICEF partnered with the Costa Rican government’s National Council for Children and Adolescents to enact the Public Policy for Children and Adolescents.The purpose of this initiative was to implement a series of educational standards and regulations for children’s rights by 2021, Costa Rica’s 200th anniversary. The government has been heralded internationally for their compliance with international standards on children’s rights.
– Frasier Petersen