Online sexual abuse against children on the rise as pandemic alters learning system

FACES AND VOICES OF COVID-19

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 20 October) — Young girls from poor urban communities have become vulnerable to online sexual abuse and exploitation with the shift in school setup from face-to-face to online classes, Talikala, Inc., a non-government organization here helping women forced into the sex trade or victims of human trafficking, revealed.

A young student attends online classes. MindaNews photo by JOAN MAE SOCO BANTAYAN

What is more worrisome is that in a number of cases, the victims’ family members have been involved in the online exploitation of children to help them cope-up with the debilitating impact of the pandemic to the economy, the group found out.

In April 2020, the United States National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that in the Philippines, the number of cases related to Online Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Children or OSAEC skyrocketed by 260% since the start of pandemic. It noted that 40% of the facilitators involved the victims’ immediate family members.

As a result, the Philippines has been identified as the “biggest source of online child sexual abuse materials,” most of them coming from poor families and with the children often going online unprotected or without guidance. According to the report, foreign online sexual predators have been targeting Filipinos since a majority can understand and speak English.

The anecdotal records of Talikala revealed how young girls from urban poor communities here have become vulnerable to online sexual abuses.

Leah (not her real name) was only thirteen when she met a certain “Mike Smith” on social media. At first, Smith was friendly and seemed to be genuinely interested in her.

“Mangutana siya nako kung kamusta akong eskwela, unya buotan kaayo siya. Mangutana pud siya kung naa ba ko mga kinahanglan sa amo. Unya manggihatagon kaayo siya, hatagan ko niya og allowance para sa skwelahan (He would ask how I am doing in school. He is very polite. He would also ask about my needs. He is generous and gives me school allowance),” Leah shared.

For child rights advocates, this level of interaction where the predator is establishing  friendship and gaining the trust of the child is labelled as “grooming.”

The “generosity” isn’t without strings attached, however.

Sa sugod kay gapangayo siya og picture nako, dayon pagkadugay na kay mangayo siya na ang suot nako kay swimsuit lang (At first, he would ask for my picture. But later on, he wants my photo where I am clad in a swimsuit),” Leah narrated.

Eventually, Smith requested Leah to take nude photos of herself and have them send to him.

Red flags

What would at first appear as harmless exchanges eventually grow into something else. Over time, the young girl will be asked if she has a sister, a relative or a friend whom the predator can also “befriend.” The same things will happen all over again.

“These young girls are drawn to these people because of the feeling that they have someone who is interested in them and is willing to support them economically,” said Jeanette Ampog, Talikala executive director. “We can see how vulnerable they are because of the situation. These contacts happen with unprotected exposure to the internet.”

 

Talikala Executive Director Jeanette Ampog. MindaNews file photo

The parents sometimes become the facilitators, or at the minimum, they allow their children to engage with these strangers because they receive something, too. For example, one family had their house repaired while one father was “gifted” with a digital camera.

In Davao City this year, authorities arrested a mother and a stepfather in Barangay 8A for abusing her 14-year-old daughter. GMA Network also reported in 2019 the arrest of a grandmother in Sta. Cruz, Laguna, for abusing her own grandchildren.

According to SaferKidsPh, majority of the victims come from poor communities and, in many instances, parents or guardians are not around to check on their children or the parents themselves force the children to do sexual acts and sell it to the perpetrators outside of the country. These cases mostly happen at home, a place that was supposed to be the children’s safe space.

Harmful effects

Children as young as three months old have become victims of online sexual abuse. The parents or the relatives of the victims who facilitate these acts believe that no real harm is being done since the child is “not touched.”

But to the advocates, nothing can be farther from the truth.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), there are some studies devoted to the effects of online sexual abuse and exploitation to child victims. Some of the most common negative effects are self-disgust, social isolation, self-harm, anxiety attacks, and challenges in well-being and mental health.

For Leah, she became disgusted with herself and wanted to commit suicide.

Niabot ko na gusto na lang nako magpakamatay kay gusto niya nga mag-video ko nga makig-sex kauban ang babae. Giluod ko sa akong sarili na mangutana ko ngano’ng na-ingon ani na man ko (I came to a point when I wanted to commit suicide because he wanted me to take a video of me having sex with another girl. I feel disgusted with myself. I had to ask myself what have I become)?” Leah confessed.

Ampog said the child victim’s confession of wanting to commit suicide is a cause for alarm.

“This is causing them stress and anxiety. Their self-blame gnaws at them each time,” Ampog said.

“We have also seen how victims have high levels of dissociation and they become more withdrawn. Another girl also told us how she feels unsafe that anytime, anyone can just come at her with her (naked) pictures,” she added.

UNICEF pointed out that discussing or reporting online sexual abuse and exploitation of children is a “taboo” topic, as families, parents or relatives get angry during investigation.

Indeed, the shift from face-to-face to online classes has greatly contributed to the unsafe exposure of children to inappropriate online content and to sexual predators.

This was reflected by a data from SaferKidsPh, which showed that 80 percent of cybercrimes involved child exploitation. (Joan Mae Soco-Bantayan for MindaNews)