MANILA – Child Rights Network (CRN) the largest alliance of organizations and agencies pushing for children’s rights legislation in the Philippines, calls on the national government, local government executives, and the private sector to step up concerted efforts in protecting children from online sexual exploitation amid the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) imposed to address the spread of the COVID-19.
Civil society organizations and child rights groups under the banner of CRN have noted a growing number of reports of online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC) during this quarantine period. Some of these reports include Twitter users from the “alter community” sharing and selling child sexual abuse materials online. It is apparent that online sexual predators are taking advantage of the situation to exploit more children to satisfy their disturbing sexual obsessions.
The lockdown situation due to the ECQ is making the already grim situation of child safety in the Internet worse. With the widening availability of Internet connection in the Philippines, and with the ECQ prompting children to spend more time online, sexual predators can find it easier to prey on children.
Moreover, amid the worsening economic situation – with many parents now finding it difficult to make ends meet due to all-encompassing work stoppage – CRN fears that parents can resort to peddling their children to sexual predators online due to the lucrative nature of these activities.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has previously reported that the Philippines has been one of the top sources of child sexual abuse materials globally – with OSEC activities paying as much as $100 – or about Php5,000 – per broadcast, which is equivalent to almost 10 days’ worth of wages for a minimum wage earner. The economic strain being suffered by families during the slowdown of economic activities during the ECQ makes these families vulnerable to online sexual predators.
Gaps need to be filled, immediately
The spike in the reported number of OSEC cases is the product of emerging and evolving technologies which are affording perpetrators diversified access to child sexual abuse materials and other forms of child sexual abuse and exploitation in the online realm.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, alarming findings on OSEC have already been reported. According to the US-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in 2018 alone, at least 600,000 child sexual abuse materials from the Philippines were reported to have been shared and sold online. This marks a 1,300% increase from the previous year.
A UNICEF study also showed that 1 in 5 Filipino children are vulnerable to OSEC. Boys are found to be as vulnerable to OSEC as girls, according to the same study.
Another qualitative study undertaken by UNICEF and PLCPD in 2014 titled “Improving National and Local Systems and Capabilities Towards Better Child Protection in the Philippines” identified ‘systems and structures’ and ‘capabilities and resources’ as the most pronounced gaps where the child protection framework in the Philippines is concerned.
Additionally, a more recent cursory mapping of laws, which include Anti-Child Pornography Act (RA 9775), Anti-Child Abuse Act (RA 7610), the Child and Youth Welfare Code (Presidential Decree No. 603), Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004 (RA 9262), Anti-Photo and Video Voyeurism Act of 2009 (RA 9995), Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 (RA 10175), Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2012 (RA 10364), and Free Internet Access in Public Places Act of 2017 (RA 10929), resulted in the need for congressional oversight of all relevant laws to review their level of efficacy based on the challenges of the time.
These laws have several gaps that make it difficult to prosecute OSEC cases. These gaps include the lack of clearly-defined rules delineating the obligations of social media networks (e.g. Facebook and Twitter), Internet cafes/kiosks or lessors of business establishments, banks, money remittance centers and credit card companies in relation to shutting down OSEC. There is also a clear need to strengthen the capacity of government authorities to implement OSEC-related laws and ensure that crimes are investigated and perpetrators are punished accordingly.
The CRN recognizes the efforts of our law enforcement agencies, particularly, the Department of Justice, the National Bureau of Investigation, PNP’s Women and Children’s Protection Center and the Philippine Internet Crimes against Children Center for continuously monitoring and acting upon reported cases of OSEC. Reporting mechanisms on OSEC are existing and wider public information dissemination will significantly boost the efforts by engaging the public in the response. Many of the reports being received by CRN could be directly submitted to the dedicated hotlines of the Philippine National Police, Department of Social Welfare and Development, or the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking.
Various studies have also invariably pointed to poverty and poor circumstances as some of the primary reasons why parents resort to peddling their children online. This could worsen now that work has virtually stopped. Social protection laws, including the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino program, should also focus on addressing OSEC-related issues.
Report OSEC cases
While we call on the national and local governments to advance efforts to curb the proliferation of OSEC amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we also enjoin individuals and the general public to report OSEC cases. Here are various hotlines where OSEC cases can be reported:
- Bantay Bata 163 (toll-free call) — dial 163 for landline and Smart or #163 for Globe
- 1343 Trafficking Actionline — dial 1343 (Metro Manila) or 02 1343 (Outside Metro Manila) or report online through www.1343actionline.ph
- Philippine National Police — hotline 117 or to report directly to the Anti-Violence Against Women & Children Division (Aleng Pulis Hotline), call the 24/7 hotlines 09197777377 (Smart) or 09667255961 (Globe) or the telephone number (8) 532-6690
- Commission on Human Rights — hotline (8) 294-8704 or mobile numbers 09360680982 (TM) or 09205061194 (Smart), or e-mail reports to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Twitter: https://help.twitter.com/forms/cse
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/help/1432374603715654?helpref=faq_content
Online resources in keeping children safe and productively occupied during the ECQ are also available for parents, guardians, the youth, and children. They can visit www.childrightsnetwork.ph/shutdownosec or www.saferkidsph.org.
The coronavirus is not the only enemy we need to jointly defeat. OSEC is also a creeping pandemic, hounding not just the Philippines, but other nations as well. The symptoms and conditions that made this virus spread rapidly have manifested themselves to us in past years, yet we did not take immediate action. We fear that without resolute joint action by government and society, OSEC will continue afflicting more and more vulnerable children.
We call on our national and local governments to immediately address the legal gaps that hinder the prosecution of OSEC cases especially in this time of COVID-19. Stronger social protection measures need to be implemented to assist vulnerable households. Reporting and referral lines should be widely and actively disseminated to empower victims and witnesses to report cases of abuse and exploitation. Social networking sites and Internet Service Providers also need to do their part in shutting down OSEC.
We must all act to shut down OSEC now.
About Child Rights Network
Child Rights Network is the largest alliance of organizations and agencies pushing for children’s rights legislation in the Philippines. CRN has a membership of 46 organizations across Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.