Protecting Children from Online Sexual ExploitationBy Emily CL Chan
As smartphones become more and more popular, most families in the Philippines, even those in impoverished communities, are connected to the world through their phones. However, this has also exposed children to potentially threatening situations.
Over the past ten years, the Philippines has seen a rapid spike in number of cases of online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC). As most Filipinos have relatively good command of English, even youngsters are able to maintain basic conversations in English. Taking advantage of it, criminals elicit foreign customers to pay for children to perform provocative acts with sexual connotations, such as taking off their clothes or touching themselves. As about half of the victims are aged under 12, with the youngest being just a few months old, they are totally unaware of the fact that their rights are being exploited.
Tragically, in more than two-third of the cases, the people who acted as facilitators – accepting requests online and forcing children to take part in filming – are their very own parents and relatives. For these adults, this “business” is a lot more lucrative than working as casual labour. The equipment required is also simple, just a camera phone with access to the Internet, making such cases extremely obscure. While the cases are hard to be exposed, they always leave lasting pain and hurt on children. In 2018 alone, authorities have received 600,000 cybertips of sexual images of Filipino children, a figure ten times more than that of 2017. However, it is believed this is just the tip of an iceberg.
Working with different organisations, World Vision initiated a campaign in 2017 to provide full assistance for children who had become victims. While our partners focus on exposing the crimes, offering temporary shelter and psychosocial support, as well as helping them re-integrate into the community, World Vision is responsible for promoting prevention and education. It is often said that prevention is better than cure, and it is particularly true on this issue. World Vision actively provides training in communities, especially those regarded as hotspots for OSEC, in order to raise awareness and warn parents against violating the law. They are educated on how OSEC affects children in life and reminded that the maximum penalty is life imprisonment if convicted. With churches, we work together to promote family and moral values among community members, who we also educate on how to identify suspicious OSEC traits, such as a sudden and significant increase in income without going out to work, or receiving regular wired payments even without a family member working abroad. We also connect with social workers and teachers to see if children are displaying any abnormal behaviour, including reluctance to eat, sudden interest in sex and familiarity with sexual terms. By intervening through these various means, we hope to see an increase in cases reported and strengthen existing prevention efforts.
Filotea, a 72-year-old grandmother, is an active volunteer of a child protection advocacy group in one of the OSEC hotspots. “I’ll never get tired of doing this kind of service to my community ,” she says. “I am always grateful every time I learn new knowledge and skills, because it means I have something to share with others, knowing that I am able to contribute something good to their lives.” She specifically urges other grandparents to familiarise themselves with gadgets, so as to protect their grandchildren from OSEC.