In Philippines, the fight against online sexual abuse of children exposes tensions between human rights and economic development

The new leader will have many “existential” challenges to address. It is, however, uncertain how high up the list the online sexual abuse and exploitation of children will be — if at all. None of the leading candidates for the top job have made this topic an election issue, despite a 2021 report that labeled the country “the center of child sex abuse materials production in the world.” The report concluded that children in the Philippines are at risk for online sexual exploitation for reasons including “free online connectivity, the widespread use of cellphones, the irresponsible use of technology.”

In a country whose economy has become heavily reliant on providing business process outsourcing services — among them content moderation for social media platforms where theses generally take place — and where there are active efforts to digitize the economy and communications, will the new leader be able to keep capital coming in while at the same time safeguarding Filipino children?

Prior to the House passing the bill in January, the Senate had passed its own version last year. Since January, the two chambers have deliberated on the final provisions, which is expected to be ratified later this month, according to the bill’s backers. After both chambers ratify the reconciled version, it will be sent to the president for his signature.

“The reason for this inaction has to do with the tension between human rights and neoliberal development models in the Philippines.”

Alden Sajor Marte-Wood, Assistant professor, Rice University

UNICEF had, in its 2016 report, warned that 8 out of 10 children in the Philippines were vulnerable to being victims of online sexual abuse or bullying. A more recent report, published in April 2022 found that in the year leading up to publication, “20% of internet-using children aged 12-17 in the Philippines were victims of grave instances of online sexual exploitation and abuse. to engage in sexual activities, someone sharing their sexual images without permission, or being coerced to engage in sexual activities through promises of money or gifts.”

In an introduction to the report from the Department of Social Welfare and Development and UNICEF, 2 million Filipino children were said to have been “subjected to Online Sexual Abuse and Exploitation”.

Online sexual abuse and exploitation of Children in the Philippines — which UNICEF says in almost all reported cases involving “the production of child sex abuse materials, including live streaming of child sex abuse” — is very gendered; A 2020 study conducted by the International Justice Mission (IJM) found 86% of victims of abuse were girls.
The reasons for this high prevalence are complex and vary from the personal (for example, children who experience bullying are more likely to turn to online “friends”) to the familial (ie the level of poverty in the household or access to devices and the internet) and finally, the social, which covers issues ranging from the “inefficiency of governmental poverty-reduction programs” to “the absence of perceived conflict between sexual exploitation and significant social norms.”

Explaining these social norms, Jean Encinas Franco, Associate Professor of political science at the University of the Philippines told CNN: “Filipinos often think that online sexual abuse is not harmful because the predator is not touching the children in reality. So, it doesn’t matter.”

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