* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Ruby (not her real name) is a survivor of online child sexual exploitation in the Philippines. Now an adult, she is committed to raising awareness about the abuse she suffered and the actions government and tech industries must take to truly eradicate this crime.
Imagine being a child, trapped inside a stranger’s house. You are not allowed to go to school, or to visit home – or even to go outside. Instead, you are forced to perform sexual acts for offenders who pay to watch over the internet.
That’s what happened to me when I was just fifteen. I grew up in a poor family, the youngest of 10 siblings, with very limited family resources. And when my parents died within a year of each other, our circumstances became even more desperate. So, when I received an online friend request from someone offering me work at an internet shop, nearly 400 miles from my home, it felt like a godsend. This person offered me free food, lodging and told me I could take classes at night after work.
When I arrived, I was expecting a computer shop with sleeping quarters for employees, but what was waiting for me was a house with three rooms. It felt like a bomb going off in my head when I saw half-naked girls coming out of one of the rooms. I was told I could not leave until I had paid off my travel fare debt – which I quickly realized was impossible, as all my earnings from every disgusting show were taken by my traffickers, which they claimed was to pay for accommodation and food.
I lost my self-esteem, blaming myself for having become trapped. I became so desperate to escape that I would shout whenever I heard a police siren go by, hoping somebody would hear me. One time after I did this, a woman in the house threatened me with a knife. Soon, I lost all hope of escape. I prayed that, somehow, I would get out of there.
That prayer was answered: Philippine authorities, who are persistent in investigating this hidden crime, found and brought me to safety, along with five other girls who had been trafficked into the same house. My traffickers were sentenced to a 15-year prison term, and I was supported in an aftercare center as I worked to overcome my trauma. I’m now in my twenties and a graduate, working with global organisation International Justice Mission to lend my voice to those still trapped in exploitation.
Online sexual exploitation of children is illegal in the Philippines – and yet it’s growing rapidly, and is even worse during lockdowns, as children are out of school and lacking some of their usual safeguards, leaving them vulnerable to financially-motivated traffickers. Sex offenders in demand-side countries like the UK have found themselves with more free time to spend online as well, and are taking advantage of this by paying traffickers to abuse children. We don’t know exactly how many children are being exploited like I was, but we know that numbers are rising quickly. In 2020, the Philippine Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking reported a threefold increase in the number of child sexual exploitation materials flagged by NCMEC. Behind every one of these materials is a real child with real trauma.
And yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. Most online sexual exploitation of children occurs on mainstream tech platforms1. We need tech companies to urgently prioritise the detection of this content – particularly in its most hidden forms, like livestreaming.
We need governments in demand-side countries to be part of the solution. Regulation, like the UK’s upcoming Online Safety Bill, is an important opportunity for the government to place a duty of care on online platforms to prevent, detect, remove and report child abuse materials.
It is the responsibility of demand-side countries to take this step. The UK is the world’s third-largest market for livestreamed abuse, which is why this Bill must do all it can to stop this exploitative cycle.
To truly see an end to the online sexual abuse of children, we need to see collaboration across society: from the tech industry, to civil society, to the financial sector, to law enforcement. The Online Safety Bill represents a potentially game-changing first step towards accountability for the platforms where this abuse is taking place. As the Bill enters Parliament this month, I urge legislators to listen to my story and the stories of other survivors like me, who believe that change is desperately needed.
Parliamentarians have the power to protect other children from experiencing what I suffered – and, by ensuring that illegal content is detected and reported, to support law enforcement as they find and bring to safety children who have already been trafficked.
When I was trapped inside that house, every day I waited to be found was a day too long. That’s why the UK and other demand-side countries should not wait to act: we have waited long enough.
This op-ed was facilitated by the International Justice Mission.
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