Challenging a Culture of Online Abuse

The scourge of online sexual exploitation continues to attack children in nefarious ways. Philippine Children’s Ministries Network (PCMN), Viva’s partner network in the Philippines, is about to embark on a programme to combat digital abuse in Dasmariñas City, near Manila – focusing on the potential of youth advocates.

Dasmariñas City has the highest number of Online Sexual Exploitation victims relative to its size in the country. According to a recent estimate, 1.39 million people worldwide are involved in forced commercial sexual exploitation, with about half of these being children.

Last year it was reported in the Dasmariñas City news that two adult sisters engaged in child pornography and sexual trafficking were arrested and that 13 minors were rescued from them. Among those liberated were a two-month old baby and an 18-year-old girl. Five of those rescued were children of the two women. The aftermath of this difficult and tragic story is exactly where PCMN find themselves working; to challenge and change the culture of digital, hidden abuse.

The Philippines is one of the most digitally connected populations in the world. According to a recent publication, the country “has taken the global lead in the digital shift.”

The report suggests that the number of internet and social media users grew by over 25 per cent from 2015 to 2016, to 13 million, and that mobile connections are now among the fastest in Asia Pacific.

When it comes to digital behaviour, and especially the amount of time spent engaged in online social media activity such as Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter, Filipinos were found to spend an average of 4 hours and 17 minutes per day online.

As an unsupervised and widely held pastime, it is easily embraced by children, and without appropriate online safety education, many become vulnerable to strangers who many approach to them anonymously online.

UNICEF recently described the Philippines as “the global epicentre of the live-stream sexual abuse trade”. Tens of thousands of children in the Philippines are victimised by child sexual exploitation.

A range of interrelated factors contribute to the particularly high concentration of online sexual exploitation in the Philippines: rapid economic development, rising social and economic inequality, industrialisation, urbanisation, high English proficiency, and technological advancement to name a few.

The programme called, “Let’s Eliminate Online Sexual Exploitation of Children” is being implemented by PCMN with support from Viva Denmark and in partnership with the International Justice Mission.

The programme’s main aims include forming a youth organisation, where young people will be able to come together to take the lead on advocacy efforts on behalf their peers. It will also train specific individual youth advocates —some of which may be survivors themselves— on themes such as leadership and communication, to help lead their peers out of the dark situations they currently find themselves in.

The PCMN has been working on the issue of child protection in the Philippines since 1998, and it’s exciting to see how they are able to creatively and flexibly adapt to the challenges that new technologies have presented towards protecting children in recent years.