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Keeping children safe in the ‘new normal’

AUSSIE DIPLOMACY MATTERS - Steven J. Robinson (The Philippine Star) - February 25, 2021 - 12:00am

More than a year ago I wrote about the need to work together to protect children from harm and predators lurking on the internet. As we observe the Safer Internet Day this month, we are reminded of the benefits and dangers that go along with a life that is strongly linked to the online world.

Since COVID-19 struck, the threat of online dangers to children and young people has undeniably become more real and concerning. Unintentionally, community lockdowns have heightened the risk of children and young people to grooming, harmful content, misinformation and cyberbullying. UNICEF together with other international child advocates have raised alarm on children’s increased risk of online harm during prolonged periods of lockdown.

The Philippine Department of Justice received more than 1.2 million cyber tips from the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2020. This is more than a 200 percent increase from 2019 to 2020. Regrettably, these ‘cyber tips’ are obscene images or videos of Filipino children that are shared or traded online.

Protecting children from all forms of abuse and exploitation is a shared commitment between Australia and the Philippines. Both governments take this commitment seriously, and I stress this in my conversations with young people, the private sector and development partners.

On a positive note, to address these issues, the Philippine Internet Crimes against Children Center (PICACC), established in February 2019, is a real testament to this shared commitment. The PICACC provides a model for an enhanced and coordinated global response against online sexual abuse and exploitation of children, and it brings together the Philippine National Police, the National Bureau of Investigation, the Australian Federal Police, the United Kingdom National Crime Agency and the International Justice Mission. Now on its 2nd year of operation, the PICACC has done a great job and rescued a total of 320 children, charged 77 facilitators and convicted four offenders.

Additionally, through the SaferKidsPH program, Australia supports the Philippines’ efforts to raise awareness of online sexual abuse and exploitation and to strengthen child-sensitive institutional responses to this crime. The program has produced a short but powerful film, “Toy,” which puts a spotlight on this hidden crime and has drawn over 1.5 million views.

It takes the whole community to keep our children safe online.  Through our SaferKidsPH consortium partners – The Asia Foundation, Save the Children Philippines and UNICEF – we work to minimize re-traumatization for child victims by supporting improvements in case management protocols and processes. The program helps schools with the enhanced implementation of their child protection policies, assists local governments to plan and budget for their child protection activities and helps children and young people become more vigilant and proactive to demand protection for their online rights and more child-sensitive services.

Our bayanihan to keep the internet safe for children seeks greater cooperation from local and foreign private sector companies. In another positive development, late last year SaferKidsPH forged partnership with the Australia-New Zealand Chamber of Commerce (ANZCHAM) in the Philippines to support child online protection through advocacy, volunteerism and fundraising. Part of this is helping companies develop and promote child-sensitive principles and protocols in their business practices and among their employees. We are excited about this collaboration, and what the program can do to ensure that companies do business better for children. As I have said many times before, protecting children is everyone’s business.

Fortunately, the call to work together to protect children online is louder and stronger than ever. A safer online experience for everyone, especially for children and young people, should be part of the way forward as we shape the ‘new normal’.

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Steven J. Robinson AO is the Australian Ambassador to the Philippines. Follow him on Twitter @AusAmbPH.

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