Editorial: Empower survivors of online trafficking

·3 min read

Online sex is harmless because it is contactless.

Pretending to have sex before a webcam is victimless. Children don’t have malice and are rewarded by treats, such as candy or a cell phone, after online role-playing.

In imitating Kpop idols, young people think nothing about touching pointer finger to thumb to flash “heart” or “love” or inserting their pointer finger in a corner of their pout to appear cute for selfies and videos. In the human trafficking world, these signals are part of an “I am available” code.

These are examples of the twisted notions and values used by parents, relatives and neighbors preying on children to justify online child sexual exploitation (OCSE), narrated a Women and Child Protection Desk officer addressing high school and undergraduate students of the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu about the Cebu City campaign to stop OCSE and human trafficking in 2016.

Last July 30, observed as World Day Against Trafficking in Persons in 2021, stakeholders stress the involvement of survivors in the fight against human trafficking and OCSE.

The coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic has intensified the vulnerability of “hot spot” countries, including the Philippines, to OCSE, wrote Melinda Gill in her paper published in Issue 16 of the “Anti-Trafficking Review” in 2021.

More than a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, tips about OCSE have increased by 264 percent, after more than 800,000 tips were reported about possible OCSE in the Philippines during 2019 alone, according to Gill.

While past and ongoing campaigns stress victimization by predator adults living in the same households as the children, Gill focuses on the studies and experiences of community-based stakeholders that show that self-generated child sexual exploitation materials (CSEM) created by the minors themselves is increasingly becoming “normalized,” with relatives and friends coaching fellow youths on how to market themselves and connect with customers through “anonymous payment systems without an adult ‘facilitator’.”

The involvement of children or minors in their own online exploitation gives a glimpse of the deep scarring and long-haul ravages of human trafficking and OCSE in survivors and potential victims.

According to Gill, a health professional with 10 years of experience in the Philippines, OCSE should be approached as a sexual and reproductive health (SRH) concern, citing a study of OCSE’s impact on Filipino survivors that established “higher levels of post-traumatic stress, lower self-esteem, severe educational delays and an increased risk of entering prostitution among victims.”

According to research on self-generated CSEM, children or minors engaged in OCSE to help their family survive, as well as to earn money to buy clothes, gadgets, drugs and alcohol. Other minors desire relationships with foreigners as a means for escaping life in the country.

To rescue survivors, they must be assisted to recognize their self-worth and -ability to weed out this self-destructive thinking and behavior, which includes coaching other youths to exploit opportunities for quick and easy cash through OCSE.

Gill emphasized the importance of a holistic SRH approach to incorporate the use of media channels that connect with youths and address topics they navigate in daily life, such as internet sexuality and gender-based violence.

To involve citizens in grassroots monitoring and reporting to expose the trafficking of children for the creation of CSEM, the International Justice Mission (IJM) launches a Tiktok campaign starting on Monday, Aug. 2, until Aug. 4.

According to an IJM press release published in SunStar Cebu on July 30, the #Report2Protect campaign features videos produced by TikTok creators that aim at public education on human trafficking and OCSE.

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