Vulnerable children, predators and the internet. The emergence of fast technology has become the worst possible enabler for the abuse of children online. This darkness is prevalent across the globe but also lurks much closer to home than we’d like to think.
04 Oct, 2016
Warning: This blog contains material that may be confronting and distressing to some readers.
Cebu, Philippines: this tropical paradise with white sand beaches is also a notorious global hotspot for prostitution, drug abuse and sex tourism. Thousands of illegal squatters cram into the community of Lorega in Cebu City. Thugs conduct illegal activity, children are approached for jobs on the street, and impoverished families do whatever they can to survive. These factors and more create a stronghold of danger for children living in this perilous neighbourhood.
Alma, is a mother who lives in this community. Her eldest daughter Cecilia, 16, recently got into what Alma refers to as ‘serious trouble’. “She went missing for one night. It was terrifying. My neighbour told me that she was last seen with a man who everybody here knows to have a bad reputation.”
Alma was at a complete loss of what to do. She thought about storming into the man’s house and demanding her daughter back but knew this could cause more danger for her family.
“I prayed for knowledge of how I could get my daughter back. In the end I went straight to Pastor Joel.”
Pastor Joel leads the church were Cecilia is registered in the Child Sponsorship Program. Knowing firsthand the extreme danger Cecilia was facing, he devised a plan to get her back.
The Philippines, like much of South-East Asia, is an epicentre for the sexual exploitation of children. Heinous crimes, too depraved to mention, are committed everyday against thousands of innocent young lives in this nation.
The intersection of poverty, high tourism, vulnerable children and predators has created a culture where it is estimated that 60,000 to 100,000 children in the Philippines are exploited in prostitution rings†.
The most staggering and fast-paced development over the past 20 years however is the abuse of children by online predators. Thousands of young children caught in the grip of poverty are forced into being the subjects of pornographic material, which can go around the world at the click of a button.
In 2014, police uncovered a billion-dollar cybersex industry based in the Philippines where most of the victims were under 18—some were as young as two†.
The island of Cebu in particular was identified as a major hotspot, with police disrupting several pornography rings.
It’s a monstrosity, but the blame is much closer to home than we think.
Who drives the demand for this sickening industry? Overwhelmingly, the answer is the Western world.
In the 2014 case, the users of this material came from countries like Australia, Britain and the United States†. In Australia alone, one man was jailed for 11 years for paying children to perform a range of sexual acts on webcam.
People in our own nation are exploiting children from the comfort of their own homes.
The rise of the internet
The internet has become the main broker of the global sex market and in particular the global sexual exploitation of children. Predators become virtual, anonymous and untraceable—or so they think.
The rise of the web has allowed a ‘virtual marketplace to emerge’, supported by powerful criminal networks and businesses†. The internet is said to run on a ‘triple A engine’ in that it is accessible, affordable and anonymous†.
What this technology has enabled is a proliferation of child pornography which allows material to be digitally produced, stored, shared and distributed online.
While it is estimated that approximately 7,000 child pornography images were in circulation in 1990, a total of 2.5 million images were recovered from one case alone in 2014†.
The link between poverty and exploitation
Children living in poverty are extremely vulnerable to exploitation. There are many situational factors for a child living in poverty that compounds their vulnerability and leaves them open to being coerced into dangerous situations.
Being an orphan, living in an unsafe living environment (slums and squatters), working alone on the street and desperate family situations all contribute to a child’s vulnerability to exploitation. Parents desperate for money may send children off to work, sometimes unaware they have given a predator complete access to their child.
Poverty becomes a breeding ground for the sexual exploitation of children.
The ECPAT (End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism) summarises the children most at risk in this way:
“The poorest children, children with disabilities, children from dysfunctional families and victims of domestic violence. Working children, runaway children, children who migrate alone or with their families, children left uncared for at home when their parents migrate, refugee and internally displaced children, stateless children, indigenous children, children in institutions can end up in precarious living conditions and exposed to direct solicitation for the purposes of sexual exploitation and trafficking.”
The trend is that while demand tends to come from areas where disposable incomes are higher, the victimisation is more likely to be dominant among communities where there is a high level of poverty or complete destitution†.
An international response
While it’s impossible to summarise the vast amount of legal, humanitarian and advocacy work being done by different organisations in this area, there has been noticeable developments in the past few years.
At the end of last year the Australian Government, in partnership with the Philippine Government launched the Child Protection Against Online Sexual Abuse and Exploitation Program. Two million dollars was announced over three years for programs specifically aimed at protecting children. Activities between the countries include setting up a registry of sex offenders and establishing a national notification system†.
UNICEF are heavily involved in the fight in this area. UNCIEF Philippines is conducting research on the issue, funding training for police and NGOs, helping to establish a national helpline, and advocating for stronger national policies†.
In 2009, following advocacy by UNICEF and others, child sexual abuse materials were made illegal in the Philippines for the first time. But there is so much more to be done.
“The legal age of sexual consent in the Philippines is still just 12 years old,” says Sarah Norton-Staal, Chief of Child Protection at UNICEF Philippines. “This makes it harder to convict people for child sexual abuse. We want to see this raised to at least 16 years, along with greater resources for finding and convicting offenders†.”
The international community has recently adopted the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), pledging to eliminate all worst forms of child labour by the end of 2025.
The SDGs provide a historic opportunity to translate the global commitment into a comprehensive strategy to eliminate sexual exploitation of children and prioritise efforts to resolutely prevent and address demand†.
As a result of persistent advocacy, the latest Sustainable Development Goals, address violence against children and identify commercial sexual exploitation of children as one of their core components. This is the first time a global commitment of this magnitude has been set to address this issue†.
What can I do?
As Christians, prayer should always be our first response. Pray for the precious children and their families, pray for perpetrators to be found and bought to justice. Pray also for perpetrators to come to repentance. Pray for workers on the field, like Compassion’s staff members, who minister to children in these situations.
We are not battling flesh and blood, but against the rulers, the authorities, the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12).
It’s important to understand how internet habits and patterns of use can contribute to this horrendous industry. Any viewing of pornography online contributes to the global sex industry. This is what the ECPAT calls the ‘drivers’ of the sexual exploitation of children. While viewing pornography may be at an ‘underlying level of demand’, it still contributes to driving demand. Any attitudes that normalise prostitution or the sexualisation of children indirectly creates a demand for victims.
We can be vigilant in educating our young people about the dangers of the sub-culture that is the sexualisation of children that is so prevalent in advertising, entertainment and media.
There are a few ways to report any instances of online child sexual abuse.
How does Compassion help protect children?
Many of the children in Compassion’s programs are at risk of dangerous situations such as sexual exploitation, child labour and trafficking. Compassion’s role is one of prevention and protection with a two-pronged approach: Active Prevention through education and awareness for every child in our programs and Immediate Response through the Highly Vulnerable Children’s fund interventions.
So does Compassion’s Child Sponsorship Program help to prevent trafficking and exploitation issues? The answer is yes. When a child is registered with the Child Sponsorship Program through their local church, they become part of a community that knows them as individuals, loves them and protects them. Compassion staff diligently monitor the wellbeing of each child and follow up on any children whose attendance to programs falls. In this sense, sponsorship helps mitigate the risk of a child being trafficked or exploited.
Compassion’s Child Sponsorship Program enables children to be known, loved and protected by a local church and child development centre. These relationships play a vital role in bringing every child a measure of safety and security—and the prospect of counselling, recourse to justice and other means of restoration if a child is affected by sexual violence.
Rescued Cecilia was safely reunited with her mother within 24 hours without incident.
Pastor Joel knew he needed to act quickly to help rescue Cecilia. Compassion was able to work in coordination with the local police, advising them of what had happened and working with them every step of the way. The man cooperated with the local police and let Cecilia go. He claimed he planned to give the 16-year-old girl a job and help her go to college.
Alma was overjoyed. “If not for Pastor Joel’s advice, things would have gotten much worse.”
Cecilia’s case is a story that could have ended very badly. Thankfully, Alma sought the help of Compassion and the local church at the right time. Compassion’s child development centre serving the families of sponsored children in Lorega has rescued more than 10 children from exploitation. In some cases, the pastor and director risked their own personal safety to make sure the children were given the care and protection they deserve.
Compassion Philippines makes the monitoring and education of sponsored children a priority. Children are educated on how to stay safe and avoid predators. “Because of the nature of our community, in our centre, the child protection policy is given high importance,” says Beth Tabasa, Student Centre Director.
“That is why we’re able to provide prompt and appropriate intervention for children who are abused. We believe that each child is unique and special, and that is why individual monitoring and intervention is a must. It is in that context that we will know the real situation of a child—whether a child is abused or exploited.”
Note: Names have been changed in Cecilia’s story to protect privacy.
Words by Rebekah Wilesmith and Edwin Estioko