A booming child cybersex industry: the Philippines
By Jasmin Tarakei (Legal Researcher, Asia)
The sexual exploitation of children is widespread in many countries – in some, perpetrators provide the demand and in others, intermediaries facilitate the supply. In the Philippines, we see evidence of both simultaneously, with many of these intermediaries being the families and relatives of these exploited children. It is an unfortunate reality that we are witnessing an increasing demand for the provision of sexual services and interaction with minors across Asia. As much of this is confined to a virtual world, we often neglect or perhaps forget its prevalence. The Philippines ranks top of the list of this particular kind of child exploitation. How you ask? Cybersex. Cybersex is the live streaming of child pornography, and it has become an easy and profitable source of income in a country with a poverty rate of over 20%.
UNICEF has stated that the Philippines has ‘become the global epicentre of the live-stream sexual abuse trade, and many of the victims are children’.
UNICEF’s 2017 Report on ‘The State of the World’s Children’ includes accounts of the abused children. Their accounts show that one of the driving factors behind the online abuse is poverty. Some of the children recount being forced into the situation by their neighbours or through false promises, which is something we can witness in other cases, such as human trafficking.
Shockingly, there have been numerous cases where the parents were either the operators or brought their children to participate in these “shows”.
Yet, in terms of legal protections and frameworks, the cybersex industry has located many loopholes. The Philippines does have a Cybercrime Prevention Act (Republic Act No. 10175; 2012) and has increased its efforts to find and prosecute cases of Cyber Trafficking. Especially when the parents or close acquaintances are part of the abuse, the rescue missions need to be conducted with the utmost care, due to the danger of inflicting further trauma on the children involved.
In a report by Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), Stacey Dooley conducted an undercover rescue mission together with a specialised Homeland Security Agent; they pointed out that ‘many young survivors of child exploitation will suffer from post-traumatic stress, suicidal tendencies and substance abuse.’ Furthermore, ‘experts believe children being abused often don’t realise the trauma they’re going through while it’s happening.’ To make matters even more complicated, the current legal age of consent in the Philippines stands at 12 years old, which results in difficulties in the prosecution of cases involving children in pornographic content.
Although there is still much to be done until the internet is a safe and regulated space for all children, this also means that there are many opportunities to act on. The Dutch NGO Terre de Hommes, for example, created a fictional 10-year-old Filipino girl online in order to catch more than 1000 paedophiles who wanted her to perform sexual acts with children. International initiatives such as the Virtual Global Taskforce work together with law enforcement agencies to protect children worldwide. To do so they follow a 4-point framework:
Pursuing exploited children through global collaboration between member countries and data sharing
Preventing exploitation through online awareness and deterrence activities
Protecting children through increased identification and appropriate education of all parties involved
Preparing interventions and developing capacity-building programs in vulnerable countries
We therefore urge the Philippines to continue their efforts of tracking-down child abuse victims, as well as prevent exploitation and trafficking in all its forms. Considering the fact, that a considerable part of this business relies on the victims’ economic situation and instability, we strongly recommend that the government strengthen social support mechanisms and implement effective poverty reduction strategies. Recognising the global and the cross-border nature of this crime, we recommend the government to further strengthen their partnerships with international law enforcement agencies as well as local governmental and non-governmental organisations in demand countries, and the Philippines itself to counter perpetrators and prevent children of falling victim to abuse. While we acknowledge that legislation on Cybercrime and Online Trafficking is still developing, prosecutions under the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act alone (Republic Act No. 9208, 2003) poses some evidential difficulties – movie files and pictures may not exist in cases of Cybersex streaming and furthermore privacy laws often render many files inadmissible in court, as has been pointed out by Holmes. We therefore strongly urge the Philippines to adapt their laws to close such legal loopholes and raise the age of consent to an appropriate age to protect children from further sexual exploitation and provide a safe and empowering environment for all.