A dark reality for Filipino children
Still euphoric over the previous day’s outing to the mall, May, a 10-year-old girl, is awakened by the sharp nudges of Mercy, her 24-year-old mother, at 5 o’clock in the morning. She adjusts her eyes to the dark room lit by the computer screen.
“Maghahanda na po, ma (I will get ready now, mom),” she responds. As she gets up from their futon bed, she is careful not to awaken her younger sister, so she tiptoes around the laptop, careful not to trip at the power cord. As she splashes her face with cold water, a sense of dread descends when she remembers that today she would perform another sex show for Joe — a 50-year-old white man living in a Western country.
Shocking as it seems, May’s experience is by no means isolated. In 2014, the Department of Justice (DOJ) received 1,000 referrals each month of online sexual exploitation of children (Osec) — or the livestreaming of sexual exploitation of children through the internet. In the first four months of 2015, the cases doubled to more than 2,000 monthly cases all over the Philippines. With the internet becoming more widespread, this upward trend is only expected to continue unless critical government intervention is made.
To understand the problem, we need to look at the mechanisms of Osec, and the profile both of the victims and perpetrators. Osec usually involves a foreign customer based in another country, a Filipino facilitator who has access to children, and the children themselves. In exchange for payment, the facilitator offers the live sexual exploitation of a child to the customer, who is actively prowling the internet for children.
Facilitators are economically motivated, but like Mercy, many start off with what they thought would be a romantic relationship with the foreign customer. In Mercy’s case, what she thought was true love from Joe turned into a pay-per-view transaction for online sex shows.
Such acts are punishable under a myriad of laws protecting the rights of children. Foremost of these is Republic Act No. 10364, the Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2012. However, what makes Osec particularly difficult is that, per available data from International Justice Mission, almost 60 percent of these facilitators are the victims’ parents, relatives, close friends or neighbors.
More than half of the victims rescued are 12 years old or younger; the youngest thus far is a 2-month-old baby. Sometimes, children are made to perform sexual acts with their parents or siblings. As with other forms of child sexual abuse, Osec can lead to physical and mental health issues, difficult sexual adjustment later on, and lifelong trauma.
Surely, many would find it difficult to believe that parents can do this form of violence to their children. The shocking nature of this reality, however, should not lead to denial. While, to their credit, various law enforcement agencies are already working on this issue (and also coordinating with foreign governments to deal with the all-important demand side), a more coordinated and collaborative public justice response is needed, with a victim-centric approach at its core.
Specifically, we need more officers assigned at the Philippine National Police Women and Children Protection Center and at the National Bureau of Investigation Anti-Human Trafficking in Persons Division exclusively investigating Osec cases. These operational units need to be properly resourced. Collaborative initiatives between these units and foreign law enforcement such as the Philippine Internet Crimes Against Children Center, envisioned to be a center of excellence for combating Osec, need to be strengthened.
Similarly, strategic investments should be done with prosecution development in the DOJ and aftercare development in the Department of Social Welfare and Development. Crucially, measures should be explored to minimize the trauma of the victims at every stage of the process, and to understand the socioeconomic contexts that inform these practices and the “local moral worlds” that surround them.
Finally, we need to raise public awareness on this matter, in a way that does not lead to a “moral panic” but to a moral response, which can then lead to stronger action from other sectors—the academe and the media, religious and civic groups, nongovernment organizations and local government units.
Everyday, thousands of Filipino children suffer sexual violence at the hands of the very persons who are supposed to care for them. This is a dark reality the country must acknowledge and act on, now.
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Gideon Cauton, a lawyer, is the director of investigations and law enforcement development at International Justice Mission, a nonprofit organization focused on human rights, law and law enforcement. Gideon Lasco, MD, Ph. D. is an Inquirer columnist and medical anthropologist.
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