Editor’s Note: The following story contains details which may offend sensibilities. This is not to glorify or justify the actions of the protagonists.This is an attempt to call the attention of the government and the society on this social media phenomenon.
THE world is getting closer to overcoming COVID-19, but there is another pandemic, a silent one threatening the Filipino family- the online sexual abuse or exploitation of Filipino children, according to various local and foreign groups watching over the welfare of minors.
The Save the Children Foundation is among the first groups that raised the alarm over the significant increase or prevalence of online sexual abuse of children in the Philippines, describing the crisis as a “silent pandemic” that needs to be addressed with urgency.
“Online sexual abuse and exploitation of children is a silent pandemic that has permanent and devastating effect on children’s mental health and psychosocial well-being,” said lawyer Alfredo Muyot, chief executive officer of Save the Children Philippines.
Citing global law enforcement data in a study released in May 2020, the US-based International Justice Mission (IJM) said the “Philippines was the largest known source country of OSEC [online sexual exploitation of children] cases.”
“The Philippines received more than eight times as many referrals as any other country,” the IJM said in its report titled “Assessing the Nature of OSEC.”
In a report in 2016, the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF), also raised a similar alarm on the Philippines.
“The Philippines has become the global epicenter of the live-stream sexual abuse trade, and many of the victims are children” the UNICEF said.
The government recently declared war against the online sexual abuse or exploitation of children (OSAEC) and child sexual abuse or exploitation materials (CSAEM).
“Yes, we are declaring a war on this, “ said Justice Secretary Crispin Remulla in a joint press conference in Malacanang in August.
“Kaya magkakasama kami rito ngayon sa kuwartong ito. Lahat na ng puwedeng gawin ng bansa para rito, 100 percent of law enforcement is here, as well as 100 percent of jails and correction facilities are here. The BJMP and the BuCor under us are here to make sure that we have reserved the place for those who insist on doing what they do.”
Highest During Pandemic
According to the National Bureau of Investigation-Cybercrime Division (NBI-CCD), there is an increase in the prevalence of child exploitation cases at the height of the pandemic.
“Oo, mas marami ang insidente na reported dahil nga naging mas mataas pa ang online engagement natin, and specifically dito sa mga bata. Itong mga bata kasi ngayon, online school, naging mas mataas ang exposure online and as a result naging mas mataas din ang insidente ng abuse online,” said NBI-CCD Chief Christopher Paz.
For the first half of 2020 alone, the Anti-Money Laundering Council recorded P113 million worth of suspicious transaction reports (STRs) associated with online sexual abuse of children in the Philippines. In 2019, or shortly before Covid, only P65.8 million worth of suspicious transactions were reported.
“This is expected to increase further until the end of 2020,” the AMLC said in its report titled “Child Pornography in the Philippines: Post 2019 Study using STR Data.”
In 2019, the AMLC received 10,267 STRs which represents a significant increase from 2,611 STRs reported from 2015 to 2018.
“STRs submitted in the first semester of 2020 have already exceeded STRs submitted in 2019. STR submissions have increased by 1,654% from 2018 to 2019 and 156% from 2019 to the first semester of 2020,” said the AMLC.
The AMLC data also showed that most of the funds were channeled through money service businesses, accounting for 97 percent and 89 percent in terms of count and Philippine Peso value, respectively.
But how much money is involved in OSAEC cases?
In a separate report, the AMLC said that for a measly amount below P1,000, Filipino children are being sold for cybersex.
It said the amount of funds per transaction ranges from below P1,000 to above P30,000, with P1,001 to P3,000 comprising the bulk of the transactions.
The AMLC also took note of the DOJ’s report in May 2020, saying online sexual exploitation of children increased by 264 percent during the quarantine period from March to May 2020.
The DOJ cited data from the US-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children which recorded a total of 279,166 OSAEC cases from its Cyberline Tip Report hotline from March 1 to May 24, 2020, compared with 76,561 reports recorded during the same period in 2019.
The number of cyberline tip reports, and the STRs flagged by the AMLC, are among the indicators used by the DOJ-Interagency Council Against Trafficking (DOJ-IACAT) in determining whether there is an increase in OSAEC prevalence.
Why the Philippines is a Hotspot
Authorities explained that areas with high population density, which are highly urbanized, which have relatively high poverty incidence, and which have the highest proliferation of child sexual abuse and exploitation incidents.
These areas include Quezon City and Taguig in Metro Manila, and Angeles and San Fernando in Pampanga, according to DOJ Undersecretary Nicholas Ty, the undersecretary in charge of IACAT.
The IJM also identified Cebu, Bohol and other areas in the Visayas as among the places where the rescued sexual abuse victims and suspected traffickers came from.
It found that the online sexual exploitation of children was usually a family-based crime.
“Of the 217 victims where the relationship to the trafficker was known, the abuse was perpetrated by 41% biological parents 42 percent other relatives,” it said.
It also said the sex offenders or customers were mostly English-speaking men from developed countries, with ages ranging from 40 to 72 years old.
The NBI believes that the Philippines being the “social media capital of the world” and the fact that majority of the population can speak English contributed to the rise of online sexual abuse and exploitation of children in the country.
“We are active online. Based on a study, we spend four hours a day [in the internet]. For whatever reasons, we produce more of these materials and one of the studies…[showed that] the main reason is, of course, poverty,” said Paz.
Ty said the pandemic has created the “perfect storm” that led to the proliferation of online child sexual abuse and exploitation materials.
“You have people on lockdown…The foreign pedophiles, they’re pretty bored and they can’t rely on their usual methods to satisfy their urges. So they opted for online means to satisfy their urges. At the same time, lockdown caused a lot of problems for many of our countrymen, which incentivized them, on the supply side, to actually allow their children or their close relatives to be victims of online abuse and exploitation of children,” he said.
He added that the increase of cases can also be attributed to better internet connectivity in the country.
War Against Child Abuse
Following the declaration of an all-out war against the perpetrators of online child sexual abuse and exploitation, the authorities have been closely coordinating with social media companies such as Facebook to provide them with digital evidence.
“Itong Facebook Philippines and NBI will be having an exclusive portal, so ito ay first time na magkakaroon ng exclusive portal for purposes of reporting and collaboration. Joint investigation ito, they will provide us digital evidence upon our request and then they will immediately take down the profile, profile page of this producer of OSAEC material,” said Paz.
He said they are also closely in touch with the internet service providersto locate the predators and traffickers, and to rescue the children who are victims of sexual exploitation.
And to beef up their capacity in investigating these cases, he said the NBI has purchased P145 million worth of digital forensics equipment which will be distributed to their offices in different regions.
The US Department of Homeland Security also provided help to the Philippine National Police.
Paz said training and collaboration with foreign counterparts have been helpful.
”Cybercrime is a borderless crime so we collaborate with foreign counterparts kasi sila ang consumer. Tayo ang producer so collaboration is key factor,” he said.
US Homeland Security Attaché Ricardo Navalta said the US would be working with other Philippine government agencies to reduce the number of cases that come from the US and foreign countries.
Pointing out the magnitude and severity of the crisis, Philippine Special Envoy to UNICEF Nikki Prieto-Teodoro has appealed to the public to help put a stop to the problem.
“We need within the social networking of everyone to stop this because it’s so lucrative. It’s a billion-dollar industry. But once you get caught and charged, you are charged internationally and that’s my job to go to the UN and tell them our problems so they can help us,” she said.
Ty echoed Prieto’s appeal.
“Everyone should engage, and everyone does engage. Our only hope is that everyone continues to engage because this a fight that we can never let up on,” he said.