23 July 2020
In 2016, a British pedophile was convicted in his country for sexually abusing children during the 60s-80s. In 2018, it was learned that he also sexually exploited 5 boys in a poor town in the Philippines, where he had hidden for 10 years before getting caught. The youngest of the boys was aged 10 when he was abused and video recorded naked. The offender was ordered to pay compensation for the damages committed against the Filipino children. Justice would have been served had all 30 victims been recompensed – unfortunately, most of them did not dare to come forward out of fear, shame, and lack of support.
Identification of victims of OSEC is one of the greatest but often overlooked challenges in the fight against the crime. In ECPAT International’s 2018 study called ‘Towards a Global Indicator on Unidentified Victims in Child Sexual Exploitation Material’, more than half of over 1 million child sexual abuse and exploitation images examined in the Interpol database involved children who remained unidentified. Information on who they were and their whereabouts were unknown; revictimization was inevitable until they were found and assisted.
“Foreigners buying Child Sexual Exploitation Material (CSEM) from family members is the most common form of OSEC in the Philippines,” said Atty. Angela De Gracia, State Counsel of the Department of Justice (DOJ), as she talked about the Agency’s role in addressing OSEC during ECPAT Philippines’ webinar last July 17. Police Major Michael Virtudazo of the Philippine National Police (PNP) also attested to this, saying that “most of those arrested by law enforcement are parents facilitating online sexual abuse of their children.” He added that transactions are often done in social media sites while payments from offenders overseas are claimed via money transfers.
Both the DOJ and the PNP recognize the difficulty in investigating OSEC, primarily due to lack of enough evidence to build a case against a prospective offender. They cited their departments’ challenge in acquiring information from Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the Philippines, even though these entities are mandated by laws to provide them with OSEC-related data. “It’s very problematic and challenging so to speak… they [ISPs] usually argue that they can’t comply because of technical limitations… it’s frustrating for law enforcement,” said Atty. De Gracia. PMAJ. Virtudazo added that the police first need to secure a court warrant to get information from ISPs – the irony is that their insufficient evidence against a suspected internet user during the onset of the investigation is the very reason why they have difficulty obtaining a warrant.
Considering these challenges and OSEC’s transnational nature, both agencies stressed the importance of international cooperation in battling the crime. Right now, most of the reports received by Philippine law enforcement come from the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children (NCMEC)’s CybertipLine, a US-based hotline. This means that we are only able to respond to cases when there are international reports. “OSEC is detected first by our foreign counterparts, local law enforcement is having difficulty [detecting cases],” Virtudazo said.
The Community-based Healing and Recovery Program
The severity of OSEC in the Philippines has been glaring for the past decade and has only worsened during the pandemic. We need to be proactive in addressing the problem if we’re seeking a significant change.
As OSEC hides in the very homes and neighborhoods of the victims, ECPAT Philippines sees the unique position of communities to take control. It conceptualized and developed the Community-based Healing and Recovery (CBHR) Program, a multidisciplinary approach in detecting OSEC in the barangay level.
“Community members play a huge role [in detecting OSEC] because they are the first ones to notice if there are suspicious activities in their communities,” said Nora Verwasa, Angeles City Social Welfare Officer III, who also joined as a reactor on the webinar.
The CBHR program has two main components. First, the establishment of a volunteer-based, multidisciplinary child protection response team to solely focus on implementing the program against OSEC in the community. The CBHR team is designed to aid Barangay Councils on the Protection of Children and can be led by any community member i.e. local social workers, teachers, parents, and young people who are determined to eliminate this fast-spreading and highly-concealed crime in their localities.
The second aspect of the CBHR is the concrete, tried and tested guidelines on how the team can identify and facilitate rehabilitation of OSEC victims in a sustainable, holistic, systematic, gender-based, and age-based manner.
“OSEC victims, especially those whose exploitation was facilitated by their own families, are often unwilling to report. There is a specialized way to approach a prospective child victim in order to get them to open up without distressing them further. We need to respect their rights and gain their trust in the process. Strategies on how to do this are part of the CBHR Program,” said Trinidad Maneja, ECPAT Philippines Social Worker and Deputy Director.
Acknowledging that “providing aftercare services for minor victims is an equally important factor in having a successful fight against OSEC,” DOJ’s Atty. De Gracia thinks that “the [CBHR] program would be very helpful since it operates in a multi-sectoral approach.” She added that “it would help the government’s efforts in the fight against OSEC.”
Meanwhile, PNP’s Major Virtudazo highlighted the importance of schools’ participation in the CBHR, particularly in helping locate the victims and raising students’ awareness on online protection.
Training manuals for the implementation of the Community-based Healing and Recovery Program have been developed by ECPAT Philippines and are ready to be disseminated to its partner barangays nationwide.
ECPAT Philippines recognizes communities’ crucial role in proactively addressing all forms of Sexual Exploitation of Children (SEC). Even with the limitations brought by the pandemic, it continues to reach and capacitate stakeholders in the grassroots, through webinars that localize national issues and plans.