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What you need to know about online sexual abuse and exploitation of children in the Philippines

Over the years, the Philippines has consistently topped the world in social media and internet usage. This, however, entails a darker reality as vulnerable children become more and more exposed to online sexual abuse and exploitation.

In 2016 alone, before the pandemic even began, UNICEF already called the Philippines the “global epicenter of live-stream sexual abuse trade” and many of the victims are children.

The country emerged as the “center of child sex abuse materials production in the world, with 80% of Filipino children vulnerable to online sexual abuse, some facilitated even by their own parents.”

As we mark Safer Internet Day, here are a few things you need to know about online sexual abuse and exploitation of children in the country:

What is online sexual abuse and exploitation of children?

According to UNICEF Philippines child protection officer Ramil Anton Villafranca, online sexual abuse and exploitation of children (OSAEC) is any act of exploitative nature carried out against any child with the use of an electronic device or any medium that can connect to the internet at any point of the abuse.

This can include manipulating or threatening a child into performing sexual acts in front of a webcam, grooming victims online, distributing, importing, exporting, or selling child sexual exploitation, and knowingly obtaining access to child sexual exploitation material online even if the abuse depicted in the material was carried out offline.

OSAEC can also be seen as a cybercrime. In the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, it refers to the use of an electronic medium, such as a computer, to conduct online communication and transactions that victimizes vulnerable children. This can also be viewed as a cyber-enabled crime, which is punishable by the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines and special laws, according to a 2021 UNICEF report.

While technology evolves and expands, so does the corresponding forms of online sexual abuse and exploitation of children.

How widespread is online sexual abuse and exploitation of children in the country?

One in two Filipino children is a victim of violence on the internet, whether it be sexual violence or cyberbullying, according to Villafranca.

He said the numbers of OSAEC possibly got worse during the pandemic.

“The US-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) reported a 209% increase in the cyber tip reports from the Philippines from January to December 2020 (1,294,750 cyber tips) compared to 2019 (418,422 cyber tips),” he said during Globe’s Safer Internet Day Forum on Tuesday.

“In 2020, the Anti Money Laundering Council reported 156% increase in the suspicious transaction lined to child sexual abuse and exploitation valued at 113 million from 2019 to the first half of 2020,” he added.

The Department of Justice has seen a 264.63% increase in reports of online sexual exploitation of children connected to the Philippines from March to May 2020, a period that coincides with stay-at-home measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Villafranca also said 90% of Filipino children could access the internet whenever they wanted to and 59% of them connected to the internet without supervision.

Why does online sexual abuse and exploitation of children occur in the Philippines?

Villafranca said there were many reasons why online sexual abuse and exploitation of children thrived in the Philippines.

One of the reasons was the high incidence of poverty in the country, both in urban and rural areas.

“One of the primary reasons is economic. Sabi ng parents, ‘makakatulong ka sa amin if you engage in this act,’” he said.

[The parents tell their children, “you can help us if you engage in this act.”]

Another cause is the lack of parental supervision, which is in some cases caused by the migration of parents who have to work abroad.

According to the 2021 UNICEF report: “Because these children are separated from their parents, they often lack the proper guidance needed to make good decisions … these unsupervised children are at risk of becoming OSAEC victims.”

Villafranca also said the country’s high proficiency in English also played as a factor as it “makes the country lucrative for perpetrators to engage with.”

There is also a prevailing social norm among parents who allow their children to undergo OSAEC, where they believe their child is their “property” and they can do what they want with them.

Some also believe that there is “no harm” done because there’s no physical contact involved.

“The damage and effect of OSAEC, it transcends the physical. It would always have an effect on the child as he or she becomes an adult,” Villafranca said.

Aside from cheap and easy access to mobile devices and internet connectivity, Villafranca pointed to the weak enforcement of existing laws as a cause of exploitation.

“We still lack resources to implement them and capacity training for these to be implemented is still lacking,” he said.

“Because OSAEC is much hidden, it’s hard to investigate,” he added.

In a statement, Atty. Tim Abejo, co-convenor of consumer group CitizenWatch, said while some laws had been created to protect children, gaps in implementation allowed OSAEC to thrive.

For example, he noted that the Anti-Wiretapping Act had provisions where evidence on OSAEC violations secured through wiretapping was “deemed inadmissible.”

The Data Privacy Act, he added, enforced that personal information of OSAEC violators could not be released by personal data controllers or processors to aid OSAEC-related investigations.

“Hence, violators would be given the chance to remain anonymous, making their arrest or conviction difficult or impossible,” the lawyer said.

What can we do?

“Ang inclusivity ay matinding panlaban sa OSAEC,” said Louie Montemar, convenor of Bantay Konsyumer, Kalsada, Kuryete, said during Globe’s Safer Internet Day Forum.

[Inclusivity is a strong defense against OSAEC.]

“Ang eskwelahan, katulong ng mga barangay. Inclusive ang programa. Kasama ng mga eskwelahan sa pagtuturo ng OSAEC ang mga barangay.”

[Schools and barangays should work hand in hand. The program should be inclusive. When teaching about OSAEC, schools should work with barangays.]

Globe's data protection officer Atty. Irish Almeida also said preventing OSAEC started with education at home.

“They have access to the internet. It has to start at home. As parents, we have to educate our kids with the proper usage of the internet,” she said. “We have to make sure they aren’t talking to strangers.”

If you or someone you know has been a victim of OSAEC, please do not hesitate to contact Bantay Bata  (163) or Philippine Red Cross (143) for assistance. – RC, GMA News