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Time for a different approach to online child sexual exploitation in the Philippines

by Melinda Gill | Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women
Wednesday, 30 June 2021 07:11 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Melinda Gill is the founding director of Renewsiya Foundation.


Online child sexual exploitation (OCSE) is a growing, global issue and the Philippines is often referred to as a ‘hot spot’ for it. The number of reported cases has been rising each year and since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, tips are reported to have increased by 264 per cent

Whilst the stakeholders agree that more action is needed to tackle the issue, there is disagreement regarding how the problem is represented and addressed. High profile awareness and online safety campaigns portray OCSE as being perpetrated against young children by adults, usually within the same household. However, existing research and the experience of community-based practitioners suggest that self-generated sexual content/material is more common, with friends and young relatives ‘coaching’ their peers in how to produce sellable images and access paying customers via anonymous payment systems without an adult ‘facilitator’. There are many motivations for children to engage in this behaviour, including to meet their families’ financial needs, to have their own money to purchase clothes, gadgets, or drugs and alcohol, or in the hope of forming relationships with foreign men online.

The primary interventions against OCSE in the Philippines are to identify and prosecute perpetrators and conduct awareness campaigns and education about online safety. These are important. However, professionals living in communities where OCSE is common observe that law enforcement activities are not a deterrent, and may actually be detrimental and traumatising for children. Similarly, we know that law enforcement activities have little preventive effect on all forms of exploitation.

I’ve been working as a health professional in the Philippines for ten years and I think OCSE should be regarded as a sexual and reproductive health (SRH) outcome. As with other SRH outcomes, it does not occur in a void but is influenced by a number of interrelated factors, such as poverty, family breakdown and dysfunction and poor parenting and supervision of children.

Furthermore, rapidly changing patterns of sexual activity, existing sociocultural norms, and a lack of evidence-based programmes, among other issues, result in other poor SRH outcomes such as teenage pregnancies, HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections, and sexualised violence against children.

As with interventions that are effective at reducing human trafficking, strategies to address OCSE and other SRH outcomes must be founded on a deep understanding of the underlying causal pathways and contextual factors for specific populations. Given the known determinants of OCSE, this must include long-term interventions at the household and community level which address poverty, enhance educational and employment opportunities, provide access to comprehensive SRH education for both girls and boys and their parents, and strengthen the family unit.

Whilst Philippines legislation in theory supports this approach, multiple factors such as fragmentation of services, lack of sustained funding, and poor cooperation at the local level limit programme reach and implementation. Progress is also disrupted by incongruous government policies and laws, including those that require a guardian’s consent for children and youths under 18 years to access SRH services, but hold that children as young 12 can provide sexual consent and be held criminally liable at the age of 15.

A large body of evidence confirms that comprehensive SRH education can have a significant impact on SRH outcomes. This impact can be extended to related issues and experts recommend the inclusion of topics such as internet sexuality and gender-based violence. However, to be effective, SRH programmes must be holistic and intensive, using activity-based and learner-centred educational methodologies. They should be sustained across multiple developmental stages and implemented at the community level, with adequate attention given to the quality and fidelity of the programme.

Current SRH programmes are typically of limited scope and reach and use lecture-style, facilitator-directed educational methodologies and are thus unlikely to be effective.

Children are considered social agents, although it is recognised that how this is conceptualised depends on an individual’s or societies’ moral and political constructions of childhood. However, it is clear that their agency comprises a mix of vulnerability and resilience, reflected in their complex and nuanced reasons for involvement in online sexual exploitation.

Given these recognised vulnerabilities, the potential power imbalances encountered online, and the potential long-term impact of OCSE, they are entitled to special protection online.

This must involve directly reaching children with evidence-based programmes and services which understand and acknowledge the different lenses which children have, including regarding their internet sexuality. Failure to do so denies their rights to comprehensive SRH education which imparts the skills they need to avoid or minimise risks and maximise their wellbeing in both the online and offline worlds.

Children must have access to a range of economic and educational opportunities and social services in order to be protected and protect themselves from sexual and economic exploitation and anything that might interfere with their education, or be harmful to their health and development.

Given the rising numbers of reported OCSE cases, the time to start implementing these interventions is now.


A longer version of this article was first published in Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 16.