Don’t look away
TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - June 2, 2020 - 12:00am

It’s time we had a serious talk about the children of our nation. About the way thousands of them are being abused, for profit and malicious entertainment.

Often not by strangers – but by their very own families who record or stream the sexual abuse of their own flesh and blood and sell access to twisted criminals.

It is at this point that many will be tempted to stop reading. Many of you will choose not to know. But ignorance has never protected any but those who thrive in the shadows. If you are really concerned about protecting our children you must not look away from the realities of their rampant online sexual exploitation. It is when we look away that we create the darkness where these criminals thrive.

The Philippines has had become “the world’s largest known source of online child sexual exploitation” according to a recent study from the International Justice Mission. What this means in more concrete terms is that the Philippines received more than eight times as many referrals (when a case of Online Sexual Exploitation of Children [OSEC] is referred to or investigated by the police) as any other country in the report. During the study period from 2010 to 2017, there were over 125,000 Philippine-based reports that qualified as OSEC cases, involving 193,405 IP addresses linked to the Philippines. Of even more concern is the fact that there has been a sharp and consistent increase in these cases – from about 43 out of every 10,000 IP addresses being used for child sexual exploitation in 2014, to 149 out of every 10,000 in 2017. And after the study concluded, a coalition of NGOs presented data that showed a 1,300 percent increase in the number of tips involving child sexual exploitation images of Filipino children from 2017 to 2018 – over 600,000 in all. While not all of the tips are indicative of a child being abused, it is beyond doubt that both the high number of reports and their continued rise are a cause for grave concern.

With the ongoing pandemic and accompanying community quarantines, the chances are high that incidences of OSEC will increase even more. To understand the reason behind this, we must look closely at how OSEC comes about and what makes it so hard to stop.

A child that is abused on camera for the perverse pleasure of a paying audience is a tragic example of an incidence of OSEC. The OSEC trafficker is someone that has physical access to the children and abuses or exploits them to produce child sexual exploitation material (CSEM). The OSEC customer pays the trafficker for access to the material, which is often transmitted live through a streaming platform.

The use of streaming technology lies at the heart of the difficulties faced by law enforcement offers in finding OSEC perpetrators. Live streams do not usually result in a stored image or file (so a search of a guilty party’s computer may turn up nothing after the stream)  and what evidence does exist is fragmented across different platforms and devices, not something as easily apprehensible as a folder of perverse images on a hard drive. The tools that have been developed by law enforcement, service providers, and NGOs to search for CSEM have not yet been adapted for use against live streaming technology.

The widespread availability of inexpensive Internet access in the Philippines – even if that access is not particularly fast or dependable – is one reason why the nation has proved to be fertile ground for this live stream dependent OSEC. Other factors, according to the study, include our general fluency in the English language, and a money transfer infrastructure built around our culture of remittances. Another and far more insidious factor – the poverty faced by many of our people. And it is here that we begin to realize why community quarantines, while necessary tools for protecting our people from COVID-19, bring with them the dangerous likelihood of an increase in exploitation.

The quarantines have brought economic activity almost to a standstill, and many families are struggling to make ends meet. Confined to their homes, the temptation represented by the “easy” money to be made through OSEC only increases. While most of us cannot imagine committing such a crime against our children, the sad statistics speak for themselves: according to the International Justice Mission study, of the 217 victims where the relationship to the trafficker was known, the abuse they suffered was perpetrated by their own relatives in 83 percent of the recorded cases – and half that time, it was committed by their own biological parents.

And if that alone isn’t enough, here are a few more from the study:

• Among the 43 victims for whom the exact length of abuse was known, the average length of abuse was two years. The range was from two months to four years.

• The average number of victims per case was four or more. Ten cases involved 10 or more victims.

• The median age of the victims was 11 years old.

• Victims included children who were less than one year old.

For an unconscionable number of children, staying home means anything but staying safe.

While addressing the poverty and desperation that can drive some to commit OSEC we can and should be part of any action plan against the crime. It should be clear that the sexual exploitation of children is completely deplorable and absolutely destructive to both the future of the nation and the foundational rights of human beings. In efforts made to stop such an evil, every resource of the State and of civil society can and should be employed.

Even in the midst of the pandemic, this is a battle that we must wage. More than that, it is because we are in the midst of a pandemic that the battle to protect children from OSEC has become even more urgent.

In next week’s column, I will talk about how we can and are fighting back.

But right now you can do something to end OSEC. Report any incident of OSEC through the 1343 Actionline against human trafficking or by sending a message to the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking at contactus.iacat@gmail.com. You can also read more about OSEC at iacat.gov.ph and https://www.ijm.org/studies.

Don’t look away or else you create the darkness that imprisons these children in their own homes. Look. See. Know. Understand. Feel. Act. Now.

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