SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Don’t talk to strangers: this is a standard admonition of parents as their children begin venturing out on their own into the world.

Having one’s young child approached by a drug pusher or some other lowlife is a parent’s nightmare. And today this is happening online.

Parents also fret about child molesters – and they are not necessarily strangers. Child molesters can be persons of authority that the child trusts. They can be teachers. As we have seen in other countries (and if you ask President Duterte), they can be priests.

How can you teach a child what constitutes sexually inappropriate behavior? The answer is complicated, especially in societies like ours where adults touch children for a wide range of perfectly appropriate reasons, including genuine delight at their cuteness. We hug and carry other people’s children, touch them to move them along or point them toward a certain direction, give them a reassuring tap when they are scared or distressed in other ways.

How can a mother tell when there are sexual undertones in a friend’s hug of her child?

The biggest problem is when the child molester or pimp is the parent himself.

A growing problem, thanks to technology, is online sexual exploitation of children. You know a problem has reached alarming proportions when an organization as large as the United Nations Children’s Fund has coined an acronym for it: OSEC.

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The Child Rights International Network defines OSEC as the “grooming, live streaming, producing and consuming (of) child sexual abuse material, and coercing children for sexual purposes.”

“Grooming” is described as an online pedophile’s technique of “developing a relationship with a child to enable sexual abuse and/or exploitation.”

Officials of Unicef-Philippines and its NGO partner ChildFund Philippines faced “The Chiefs” recently on Cignal TV’s One News channel as part of efforts to raise public awareness of the OSEC problem.

The effort is being undertaken because the Philippines has become one of the biggest sources of OSEC, according to Marie Michelle Muñoz, child online protection coordinator for Unicef Philippines.

Poverty is a key driver of sexual exploitation. But Unicef says Filipino kids are additionally vulnerable to OSEC because of their access to the internet and grasp of English.

A serious concern is the fact that in many cases, parents themselves act as facilitators of their children’s sexual exploitation. Their guilt is somewhat assuaged by the idea that because the children are simply going naked online and are not being touched by the clients, no real sex is involved. Child welfare advocates stress, however, that even the absence of physical contact in OSEC creates psychological and emotional trauma that may leave the victims scarred for life.

The problem has also worsened as clients demand to watch children not just going naked online but also being sexually assaulted physically.

Unicef reports that there are videos of Filipino children “being sexually assaulted, raped, tortured, beaten, and even strangled to death.”

“In Cagayan de Oro City, Australian pedophile Peter Scully made his children victims wear dog collars and chains,” Unicef reported. “He also filmed himself raping an 18-month-old girl.”

The youngest OSEC victim in the Philippines was a two-month-old baby, according to the International Justice Mission. In 2018, over 60,000 cases of OSEC were reported. From 2011 to 2017, over 100 suspects were arrested as part of IJM rescue operations; only 20 have been convicted so far.

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Who’s to tell OSEC victims that they are doing something wrong – especially if their parents are willing conspirators?

Drawing the line between obedience to one’s parents and protecting oneself becomes even more difficult when children are told that their family’s survival depends on their “work.”

ChildFund’s Allan Nuñez told The Chiefs that in one case, an entire village was found to be involved in the online sexual exploitation of children in the community.

“They cover up for each other,” Nuñez told us.

Unless there is physical pain involved in the sexual acts that their elders tell them to perform, will the children see the adults as tormentors?

A social worker told me that in one case, a rescued boy began moving his hips in an unmistakable sexual act each time he saw a video camera pointed at him.

When such children are rescued from their exploiters, Nuñez and Muñoz said, the kids are traumatized – by their forced separation from their parents. Their resistance to the separation can turn violent.

Will a child trust strangers who tell him or her not to trust one’s parents?

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We have laws against various types of cyber crimes, child pornography, child labor, and domestic violence including sexual and psychological abuse of children.

Muñoz and Nuñez, however, say a law targeting OSEC as a separate crime is needed. They say this will allow authorities, among other things, to compel online companies to cooperate in pursuing perpetrators of OSEC and shutting down the sites.

Laws against money laundering can also be enhanced, they say, to prevent people from profiting from OSEC.

Prevention of child sex abuse has always been a major challenge. Parents are free to decide when it is appropriate to discuss such a sensitive topic with their kids. The issue can be included in the grade school curriculum, perhaps as part of a broader subject, just to raise children’s awareness of what constitutes sexual molestation.

As for the rest of us, we can help by watching out for telltale signs of OSEC. Teachers, for example, should worry when a pupil’s academic performance begins slipping and the child becomes listless or starts losing weight.

Muñoz and Nuñez note that children are usually rewarded by OSEC facilitators with cash or other forms of payment. So if your nine-year-old suddenly brings home a new cell phone, it’s time to take a closer look at why he’s spending a lot of time with another adult, or at the house of a particular neighbor. Adults can also find out if their children are accessing the “dark web.”

Even civic-minded vigilance, however, can come off as nosiness, especially in Metro Manila where people tend to mind their own business. There are privacy laws to contend with. We saw spirited resistance to the anti-palo bill against corporal punishment, with parents saying they should be given leeway to discipline their own children.

Technology and the social environment favor perpetrators of OSEC, but they are not impossible to neutralize. Unicef and other child welfare advocates have proposals that are worth pursuing.

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