Thousands of children in the Philippines are affected by the murky world of online sexual exploitation. Andrew Dubock travels to the country to find the light and hope that our partner network is offering.
A teddy bear. A symbol of childhood, of innocence, of security.
However, for Angela, a 12-year-old from the Philippines, her favourite toy will always be a reminder of the moment when her aunt betrayed her. “When we picked her up, Angela didn’t know why she had been rescued,” social worker Jovie Sorongon tells me. “Her aunt told her the picture with her teddy bear would become her profile picture. Instead it was sent online to the abuser and the aunt would get money from it.”
A police raid prevented her aunt from repeating the act – but the damage was already done. “It was heartbreaking to see Angela”, adds Jovie. “She was really crying because she was worried about what would happen to her family.”
UNICEF describes the Philippines as “the global epicentre of the livestream sexual abuse trade.” The country’s rapid urbanisation and technological advancements, coupled with rising social and economic inequality, are factors in the increase of online sexual exploitation of children, or OSEC.
As a father of two daughters of a similar age to Angela, her story horrifies and sickens me and this is at the front of my mind as I travel to Dasmariñas, an hour’s drive from the capital, Manila. It’s a city that has the highest number of victims relative to its size – and that figure is likely to be even greater due to under-reporting.
With a commitment to protecting children from abuse for 20 years, Viva’s partner Philippine Children’s Ministries Network (PCMN), has started a programme to eliminate OSEC, particularly focusing on Dasmariñas. It has three clear focus areas: prevention (raising awareness across society), justice (improving reporting through greater collaboration), and restoration (safe community reintegration of OSEC victims).
Getting the message into the heart of the community is crucial and, during my time in Dasmariñas, I visit several people from churches, schools and local government to hear how PCMN is influencing all parts of society.
Several ‘barangays’ (or neighbourhoods) are beginning to partner with PCMN already. Jeffrey Laureano, a Barangay councillor, says, “When it came to my attention that there were OSEC cases in my area I was really shocked and presented it at a council meeting. I pushed that we should get involved in this so we could address this very important issue.”
Three years ago, teacher Adrian Dean from Dr Jose Rizal Elementary School discovered that one of his students had fallen victim to OSEC. He tells me, “During the time, I didn’t know how to handle it – I was not trained. After that we had topics such as anti-bullying and child protection policy. But then recently I saw a post from a former student about PCMN. It got my interest. I see the connection of PCMN and our school in working together.”
Pastor Derek Johns, from World Christian Fellowship, has just begun a partnership with PCMN on the issue of OSEC. “We’re learning exactly how to deal with the problem: who to contact, how to train the children. Through our relationship with PCMN we’re getting connected with other organisations, other churches and other groups who are also dealing with OSEC.” He adds, “I believe that we’re not called to just stay here in the building – but to be the light of Jesus Christ in the community. And light means taking action. We want to see children rescued – and churches need to be at the forefront of dealing with these issues.”
As I talk with various people I struggle to fully understand the motives behind the actions, and in particular why – in such a family-orientated society – it is adults in families who exploit the children in their care. As social worker Jovie, who is also PCMN’s child protection officer, tells me, “In many cases the perpetrators are the mothers or the grandparents. It has become a widespread family business in the Philippines.” Councillor Jeffrey is quick not to point fingers, saying, “We cannot blame the parents because what drives them in doing it is poverty.”
PCMN’s youth-driven advocacy is impressive. It’s a privilege to spend time amongst the group of energetic young people who are passionate about protecting children and driving this programme forward.
Arjay Dela Cruz tells me about his motivation. “OSEC has made me afraid for the welfare of children, especially because I have nephews and nieces. I used to ask myself what I can do in the community but PCMN has taught me I can make a difference. I want children to play, exercise and enjoy their rights – and to be free from abuse and exploitation.”
Watching an interactive session led by four youth advocates at a church, it’s great to see the 8-14 year-old children there engage and begin to understand their rights by writing post-it notes and adding them to a wall display. This is during one of eight sessions produced by PCMN, with other modules teaching children about different forms of OSEC, how to recognise and report it and what can be done to prevent it. Visual aids, including a story told by puppets, help to bring it alive.
As well as the current OSEC focus in Dasmariñas, PCMN is also equipping youth leaders from across the Philippines to tackle the issues. I attend a comprehensive two-day national training of trainers event in Manila for 50 people, including Khosh Susithoren, who travelled from Iligan City in northern Mindanao.
She says, “OSEC is a big problem where I live but it’s also a taboo subject, so these seminars are equipping me how to be culturally sensitive. These children are very damaged. I think in another time, that could have been me or you. So we’re blessed that we have not gone through what they have. And with that blessing comes the challenge and the responsibility that we really need to do something for these children.”
Fe Foronda, PCMN’s National Director, echoes these words, telling me “We cannot just close our eyes to this. We should be engaged in it and change the situation. My hope is that this will be stopped in the near future and in collaboration with everyone, especially the churches, the government and the NGOs.”
Our brothers and sisters in the Philippines are beginning a journey to eliminate the online sexual exploitation of children. It was inspiring to meet people committed to the fight, and I left hopeful that they can have an impact on children, families, neighbourhoods and indeed whole cities.
And that children in the Philippines will be able to continue to hug their teddy bears without lasting, painful memories.
Andrew Dubock is Viva’s Fundraising and Outreach Team Manager
This Christmas, will you help us to prevent children in the Philippines from being sexually exploited online? Go to viva.org/christmasappeal for videos, more articles and ways to give.
This article first appeared in Life magazine, issue 10