Toliara — The warning posters start at the airport in the capital, Antananarivo, informing visitors that Madagascar says "NO to sex tourism" and "Malagasy women are not tourist souvenirs".
Large billboards notifying arrivals that the authorities will also prosecute those caught having sex with children line the route into the city, and at tourist hotels - along with a colourful "Welcome to Madagasikara - the land of the lemurs" - there is likely to be a sign saying the hotel has a right to check the age of anyone accompanying guests to their rooms.
Madagascar, the vast tropical island off the east coast of Africa, is trying to expunge itself from the sex tourism map, and especially to close its doors to paedophiles shopping for minors.
To underline its commitment, the government has adopted a new law against the sexual exploitation of children that includes punishment of the adult exploiters; several foreigners have been convicted as a result.
But a walk after dark through the streets of Toliara, a thriving tourist town in southern Madagascar, shows that much still needs to be done. Sex workers own the streets, blowing kisses and waving at foreigners, trying to cash in on the tourists who are not visiting this impoverished Indian Ocean island for its unique bio-diversity.
"It's a very cheap place, women are beautiful, there are few controls on sex tourism. Nobody says anything about this; you can come here and do whatever you want," said Jose Louis Guirao, who runs projects for Bel Avenir, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) promoting educational, social and health-related initiatives. "The women start when they are 10 to 12; they are very young."
A report by the US State Department this year said Madagascar was a "source country for women and children trafficked within the country for the purposes of sexual exploitation", but praised the government for trying to tackle the problem.
The reality is that children, mostly from rural areas, are highly vulnerable to exploitation: they are trafficked for domestic servitude, forced labour and sex work; children often enter the labour market with the approval of their mothers, for whom their income may be the only source of living. In Toliara Province, for example, 80 percent of people live in poverty.
Bruno Maes, the UN children's fund (UNICEF) representative for Madagascar and the Comoros, is unequivocal in his condemnation of the sexual exploitation of children. "A child who is a victim of sexual abuse may suffer serious and lifelong consequences; this is a crime that is totally unacceptable in all contexts. UNICEF is concerned about its spread in Madagascar," he told IRIN.
At Bel Avenir's offices, Aline, a sex worker, is attending a meeting with her colleagues, some of whom have brought their children, to find out more about their rights, future opportunities, and protection.
We take on every client that there is - we need money. I don't say no, but the girl who gets the blond client, a French or an American, is the lucky one
Aline makes jokes and plays with the condoms distributed by the NGO, but turns serious when she talks about her trade. "We take on every client that there is - we need money. I don't say no, but the girl who gets the blond client, a French or an American, is the lucky one," she told IRIN. "Many foreigners come to Toliara and get girls. They like Madagascar, they like the young girls very much."
The main source countries for child sex tourists are reportedly France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland, and the neighbouring islands of Mauritius and Reunion. Victims are usually girls, but reports of foreign male tourists seeking sex with underage boys are becoming more frequent.
Advocacy groups say progress is being made in tackling child sex tourism, but controlling it is very difficult because of corruption, and even protests from the children's parents - prostitution is often an inherited occupation passed down for generations.
Madagascar has so far been much less affected by AIDS than most other countries in continental Africa, but international organisations warn this could change quickly. "The total lack of knowledge about the disease, from what I see here, means that it could soon be much, much worse," said Bel Avenir's Guirao.
An economic boom linked to local mining projects has attracted sex workers from across the island to the flourishing new towns, and an outbreak of syphilis in the southeastern mining town of Fort Dauphin in 2007 rang alarm bells: it pointed to the lack of condom use, and sexually transmitted infections also heighten the risk of HIV transmission.
Asked if she used the condoms given out by Bel Avenir, Aline said: "Many clients don't want that, and they give dollars or euros and I agree no condom. That is my life in Madagascar."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]