By Merlina Hernando-Malipot
Advocates of children’s rights urged the government and the public to step up concerted efforts in protecting children from online sexual exploitation amid the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) imposed to address the spread of the COVID-19.
Child Rights Network (CRN) and SaferKidsPH (SKPH), in separate statements, called on the national government, local government executives, and the private sector to ensure that children are protected from online sexual abuse and exploitation of children especially during the public health crisis. CRN, the largest alliance of organizations and agencies pushing for children’s rights legislation in the Philippines, noted a “growing number” of reports of online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC) during the quarantine period.
“Some of these reports include Twitter users from the ‘alter community’ sharing and selling child sexual abuse materials online,” CRN said. “It is apparent that online sexual predators are taking advantage of the situation to exploit more children to satisfy their disturbing sexual obsessions,” it added. CRN noted that the lockdown situation due to the ECQ is making the already “grim situation” of child safety on the Internet worse. “With the widening availability of Internet connection in the Philippines, and with the ECQ prompting children to spend more time online, sexual predators can find it easier to prey on children,” it added.
Amid the worsening economic situation—with many parents now finding it difficult to make ends meet due to all-encompassing work stoppage—CRN also expressed fears that “parents can resort to peddling their children to sexual predators online due to the lucrative nature of these activities.” CRN noted that the spike in the reported number of OSEC cases is the “product of emerging and evolving technologies” which are affording perpetrators diversified access to child sexual abuse materials and other forms of child sexual abuse and exploitation in the online realm.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, CRN cited alarming findings on OSEC have already been reported. Citing data from US-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, at least 600,000 child sexual abuse materials from the Philippines were reported to have been shared and sold online in 2018 alone which marks a 1,300% increase from the previous year.
CRN said that a UNICEF study also showed that “1 in 5 Filipino children are vulnerable to OSEC” and “boys are found to be as vulnerable to OSEC as girls.” The CRN also noted that various studies have also invariably pointed to poverty and poor circumstances as some of the primary reasons why parents resort to peddling their children online. “This could worsen now that work has virtually stopped,” it added.
Meanwhile, the SKPH Consortium – composed of Save the Children Philippines, The Asia Foundation, led by UNICEF, and supported by the Australian Government – said there is a “higher risk” of online sexual abuse and exploitation of children during quarantine.
SKPH noted that children and youths are spending significantly more time online with school and all other activities have been suspended due ECQ. While it recognizes that while online platforms provide critical socializing, learning, and playing environments for our children, SKPH noted that “it also increases their exposure to online harm such as cyberbullying, risky online behavior, and online sexual abuse and exploitation.”
Aside from this, SKPH noted that another direct effect of the ECQ is the heightened economic vulnerability of many Filipino families whose heads of households have limited access to resources. “Taken together—loss of income, movement restrictions for children, isolation, heightened exposure to online platforms, and high levels of stress and anxiety—will increase the likelihood of children to experience online violence,” the consortium said.
SKPH said that examples of OSAEC that can be experienced by children during the ECQ includes online sexual grooming; live streaming; and creation, production, and distribution of child sexual abuse and exploitation materials by pedophiles and predators. “This is the secret pandemic affecting children in their very homes,” the consortium warned. Citing reports from the Philippine National Police-Women and Children Protection Center (PNP-WCPC), SKPH noted that even during the ongoing ECQ, they “continue to receive and monitor online sexual abuse and exploitation of children-related reports.”
For CRN, the coronavirus is not the only enemy that needs to be jointly defeated. “OSEC is also a creeping pandemic, hounding not just the Philippines, but other nations as well,” the network said. “The symptoms and conditions that made this virus spread rapidly have manifested themselves to us in past years, yet we did not take immediate action [and] we fear that without resolute joint action by government and society, OSEC will continue afflicting more and more vulnerable children,” it added.
Report cases, Act now!
Both groups urged the public to also report OSAEC cases. “While we call on the national and local governments to advance efforts to curb the proliferation of OSEC amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we also enjoin individuals and the general public to report OSEC cases,” CRN said.
SKPH noted that starting April 15, Smart Communications and Globe Telecom—through the support of the Department of Information and Communications Technology, National Telecommunications Commission—will also be sending out a public service advisory SMS blast to all their consumers subscribers inviting children, parents and community members of the communities to visit online platforms for more information on how to protect children and adolescents from violence, both online and offline.
Meanwhile, CRN also called on national and local governments to immediately address the legal gaps that hinder the prosecution of OSEC cases especially in this time of COVID-19. “Stronger social protection measures need to be implemented to assist vulnerable households,” it said. “Reporting and referral lines should be widely and actively disseminated to empower victims and witnesses to report cases of abuse and exploitation,” it added.
Given the heightened risks of online harms, SKPH assured that it will continue to work with government, civil society, and private sector partners to ensure all children are safe online. “It is only in the coming together of all these actors and institutions, from both the public and private sector, that we can succeed in keeping children safe during these troubling times,” the consortium said.