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Taking Stock of Our Collective Progress in the Fight against Online Sexual Exploitation of Children

Since 2016, International Justice Mission (IJM) has worked side by side with the Philippine government and other stakeholders to combat online sexual exploitation of children, in particular the trafficking of children to produce new child sexual exploitation material, especially via live streaming video. Over the past six years, promising practices have emerged in law enforcement, aftercare, prosecution, local deterrence campaigns, survivor empowerment, and global collaborations. The Philippines, a known hotspot for this crime, has many learnings to offer other countries as this crime impacts countries across the world.

Disrupting Harm in the Philippines: Evidence on online child sexual exploitation and abuse, a study released on April 20, 2022, affirms the urgency of combating online child sexual abuse and exploitation in all its forms. IJM commends ECPAT, INTERPOL and UNICEF for conducting this study and adding to the evidence of online child sexual exploitation and abuse, along with robust recommendations.

In the past year, 20% of internet-using minors aged 12-17 in the Philippines were victims of grave instances of online sexual exploitation and abuse, according to the study. This is shocking and builds on what IJM, the Philippine government and other partners previously found: the estimated prevalence rate of internet-based child sexual exploitation in the Philippines more than tripled from 2014 to 2017 (see 2020 IJM-led study). Recent statistics also point to a dramatic increase of reports related to online child sexual abuse and exploitation, potentially fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) recorded 29.3 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation in 2021 – a 73% increase from 2019.

Disrupting Harm defined online child sexual abuse and exploitation “as situations that involve digital or communication technologies at some point during the continuum of the sexual exploitation or abuse of a child.” IJM supports an end to all forms of online child sexual abuse and exploitation. In our program, IJM has focused on combating the trafficking of children to create child sexual exploitation material, especially via live-streamed videos. In this particular crime, a paying sex offender (often from Western countries) watches in real-time via a video call as he directs a local trafficker in the Philippines to sexually abuse children – with a median age of 11 years old.

Because abuse in live-streamed videos largely goes undetected, estimating its prevalence is quite a challenge. But IJM recently developed a research methodology, with help from the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab and an advisory council made up of 24 world-class experts, researchers, and field practitioners across the technology, financial, government, and child protection sectors (see Scale of Harm). This method combines national household surveys using the Network Scale-up Method with data science analysis of secondary datasets.

As we attempt to get a fuller picture of live-streamed child sexual exploitation, key steps have already been taken to combat this crime – from training law enforcers to ensuring trauma-informed aftercare and child protective prosecution. Disrupting Harm noted gaps that rightfully need attention from stakeholders. In light of this new important study, let’s also take stock of our collective progress in the fight against this crime.

In law enforcement, 379 men and women from anti-trafficking and cybercrime units have sharpened their investigative skills and knowledge through such trainings as the Basic Internet Crimes Against Children Training and Advanced Investigative Workshops (AIW), conducted by IJM and partners since 2017. The AIW trainings have resulted in 12 actual operations leading to the rescue of 54 victims and the arrest of 17 perpetrators. To address limited manpower and specialized equipment, IJM has advocated for increased resources for the Philippine National Police (PNP) – Women and Children Protection Center (WCPC) and the National Bureau of Investigation – Anti-Human Trafficking Division. In 2018, WCPC received a fourfold increase in its operational budget. More recently, IJM has initiated an advocacy to reorganize WCPC into a National Operational Support Unit, or a “Group” status, which will give the unit more operational flexibility.

Meanwhile, IJM’s Center to End Online Sexual Exploitation of Children launched Project Needlestack in 2021, so that more CyberTipline reports from NCMEC result in actual rescues and arrests. The project aims to add new analytical support for reports made available to the Philippines, expand access to CyberTipline-related tools, deliver training to relevant government agencies, and support enhancements to the CyberTipline itself.

In prosecution, IJM and the Department of Justice jointly pursue the child’s best interest through victim-centered and child-protective prosecutorial strategies, including the use of digital forensic evidence and the conduct of video in-depth interviews or VIDI. Plea agreements are also selectively pursued to spare child victims from testifying in court, which potentially triggers their trauma.

Last November 2021, IJM’s Center to End Online Sexual Exploitation of Children released a new paper: Child-Protective Prosecutions: A Strength-Based, Child-Centered Approach to Assessing Prosecution Results. It offers the child protection community a reliable method to measure and improve case results and affirm partners leading the way in child protection. A series of round table discussions (RTD) will be conducted this year, with the first iteration set this May 17, 2022. By the end of each RTD, it is our hope that the audience will further understand the benefits of child-protective prosecutions and support child-protective solutions in their home jurisdictions.

Comprehensive and trauma-informed care for survivors has been a shared goal between IJM and our partners. Together with the Department of Social Welfare and Development, we developed and piloted a model on kinship and foster care for survivors under the recently concluded Child Protection Compact Partnership, a grant from the U.S. government. We placed survivors in foster care families with help from the NORFIL Foundation and the Parenting Foundation of the Philippines.

Also worth highlighting is ProtectPortal, a data harmonization project of IJM and the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT). Officially launched on Feb. 14, 2022, ProtectPortal intends to bridge the gap on timely data reporting, systematic data collection, and response to trafficked victims.

Deterrence campaigns are also gaining momentum, with a growing number of influencers using their platforms to educate the public about the harms and legal consequences of online sexual exploitation of children. Within six months, IJM has launched two campaigns on TikTok, #Report2Protect and #NotOnOurScreens, garnering nearly two million combined views. It is encouraging to see tech companies like TikTok taking part in deterrence efforts and consulting with government and civil society to step up their online safety measures.

Meanwhile, IJM’s partnership with the Philippines’ largest fully integrated telecommunications company PLDT and its wireless subsidiary Smart Communications not only raised community awareness through joint campaigns but also inspired a robust response against websites hosting child sexual abuse materials (CSAM). Since November 2021, the companies have blocked over one billion user attempts to access CSAM. They likewise blocked more than 224,000 web addresses hosting CSAM as of the end of March 2022.

Amid all this progress, the fight against online sexual exploitation of children continues. IJM looks forward to stronger collaborations with governments, civil society, and private sector as we end impunity for this crime, give survivors a new lease on life, and build a safer future for children that lasts.

*Stock photo


About International Justice Mission:

International Justice Mission is a global organization that protects people in poverty from violence. IJM partners with local authorities in 19 program offices in 11 countries to combat slavery, violence against women and children, and other forms of abuse against people who are poor. IJM works to rescue and restore victims, hold perpetrators accountable, and help strengthen public justice systems. Learn more at IJM.org.

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Maggie Cutrell
mcutrell@ijm.org
+1 478-955-4666


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