“I like to run around the yard with my friends, I like to color, I like to make jewelry and I like reading.”
According to records provided, in 2016, along with other children in her family, Rosie (not her real name) was forced to participate in online live shows “supervised” by her mother and aunt. Later on, the 11-year-old was rescued by the police and by the International Justice Mission (IJM)-Cebu from online sexual exploitation.
The investigation found that Rosie, her sisters, and months-old cousins have been told to perform sexual acts for a paying customer watching through the webcam. Her mother, now sentenced to 37 years in prison after entering a bargain plea, received payments from foreigners in exchange for this live streaming.
Checking in on her after a while, social welfare people said Rosie doesn’t seem to bear the scars of the disturbing episode of her childhood. (Or maybe not yet.) She lived in a shelter with her sisters. And the social workers who looked after the girls said Rosie likes ice cream cones and spaghetti sold in convenience stores.
After a while, Rosie had a chance to visit her father, who was already estranged to her mother before the incident.
“According to a study, which examined cases from 2011 to 2017, OSEC (online sexual exploitation of children) was typically a family-based crime, with 41% of traffickers being biological parents and 42% being other relatives,” said Dolores Rubia, director, National Aftercare Development, IJM Philippines.
The predators are not limited to foreigners living overseas.
In May 2020, a Philippine court convicted American David Timothy Deakin on charges of sexually exploiting Filipino children using webcams to sell videos, photos, and live streams to buyers abroad. Deakin was arrested in April 2017 in Mabalacat, Pampanga, based on the information provided by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“OSEC is a serious threat to children and possibly the most devastating form of modern-day slavery,” said Atty. Samson Inocencio Jr., VP, IJM Global OSEC Hub and national director, IJM Philippines. “OSEC involves the actual sexual abuse of children — it is not just sending nude photos as some think. In the cases IJM has been a part of, we know that very young Filipino children were molested by adults, forced to have sex with other children, made to use sex toys to portray sex acts, made to touch themselves, and do other sexually explicit conduct.”
In data provided by UNICEF, the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) reported a staggering 264% increase (or 279,166 from 76,561 from the same period last year) in online sexual abuse and exploitation of children (OSAEC) during the months of March, April, and May 2020 or at the height of Enhanced Community Quarantine imposed by the government to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The culprits often point to poverty as the main reason why they commit the crime of sexually exploiting children using digital means.
In a study conducted by UNICEF for its Safer Kids campaign, the agency found that many of the victims come from a dysfunctional family. It means that there is no strong foundation, especially among parents, that would make them believe that children are in danger and that the lifetime effects could be extremely devastating because of OSAEC.
Based on the UNICEF study, the victims’ age range from 9 to 11 (or Grade 4-5 pupils) and the report also saw that 9% of them already had sexual relations at such a young age.
But according to UNICEF, predators do not discriminate on age or gender or family background, or social status. As long as they are young enough for them, they are potential victims.
The “comforts of the home” phrase spins a new meaning for the peddlers or what social welfare organizations label as “facilitators.” Home privacy shields them from being caught committing a crime that sometimes even relatives recruit other children and partake in the payment in return.
Offenders have a false notion that because the children were not physically abused, there was really no harm done.
The offenders, who also vary in gender and age, are people these children trust. If not their parents, they are usually uncles or aunties or neighbors. They are not necessarily technology-savvy but have a good grasp of how to use the internet and operate basic functions on a computer or mobile device.
Alarmingly, UNICEF’s study reveals that nearly half of children (48%) are aware of the dangers that are lurking on the internet saying that they believe it is not safe for children like them. They have experienced various forms of abuse such as bullying (1 in 10) and online sexual abuse and exploitation (2 in 10). The study also saw that boys are as vulnerable as girls.
What the child welfare agency discovered is that the “conversion rate” among boys is higher than girls with those in the youngest age bracket (9-10 years old) record the highest conversion figure.
There are efforts from the public and private institutions to prevent these crimes from happening and to arrest the offenders.
Republic Act 7610 of 2012 or the Special Protection of Children Against Child Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act is supposed to shield minors from these illegal — and reprehensible activities. Several organizations have come up with their own safe internet kids campaigns to further heighten the awareness of OSAEC.
However, it was found out that it would take more than just keeping parents and the adults informed of the dangers. It would take a concerted — and monumental — effort from the government, technology providers, and children’s rights watchdogs.
Like Rosie, Joy (not her real name) is one of the thousands of victims of online sexual abuse. Abandoned as a child, Joy’s ordeal began at 10 years old and went on for seven long years. Alone, homeless, and helpless, someone she knew and trusted thrust her into cybersex trafficking. It went for most of her childhood: shooting sexual acts that she calls “Boss” broadcast for customers around the world.
Her rescue was surreal for her, according to the available information provided. She was in disbelief.
Joy later went to fulfill her dream of obtaining a college degree.
Joy is now 22. She represents many children like her in speaking engagements abroad hoping to give light to the severity of the crimes and prevent other children to fall victim to cybersex trafficking.
Not every OSAEC victim would have an opportunity like Joy or even Rosie to turn their lives around. The humiliation of stripping naked and performing sexual acts are scars — and stigma — that victims had to live with. The percentage of those rescued as opposed to those who remain victims will remain unclear. And child rights advocates believe that unless stringent laws are strictly enforced, there would always be a whole extended family who would fall to cybersex trafficking.